Yugoslav Wars Continue in History Textbooks

Article written by Kataria Subasic for AFP, June 24, 2011:

Despite efforts to heal the wounds of the bloody 1990s conflicts that tore the former Yugoslavia apart, the children from former republics are still being taught very different versions of the events.

As regional politicians, notably in Croatia and Serbia, are pushing for reconciliation to move their nations towards the European Union, historians complain that school textbooks are still propagating “horrible stereotypes” about other ethnic groups.

The beginning of the end for the Yugoslav communist federation formed during the World War II and led by Josip Broz Tito, began on June 25, 1991, when two of its six republics, Slovenia and Croatia, proclaimed independence.

The move sparked a series of wars that left more than 130,000 people dead and millions displaced throughout the Western Balkans.

In history books the disagreement on the causes and the aims of the brutal conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo still wages on.

Serbian historian Dubravka Stojanovic warned that the textbooks are a “slow burning” fire “on which the hate is being cooked very patiently for a long time.”

In Croatia 15-year-olds learn that the August 1995 military operation Storm that ended the war was a liberation of “the (Serb-)occupied territory” which showed the “enviable military … capability of the Croatian army”. It mentions only fleetingly that it also drove many Croatian Serbs to flee because “they were afraid of facing the consequences for the crimes they committed”.

In Serbian textbooks, pupils are taught that the war in Croatia ended up with the “Croatian army’s expulsion of more than 220,000 Serbs”.

Damir Agicic, history professor at Zagreb’s Faculty of Philosophy, says textbooks in the region lack a “multiperspective view” on recent history.

“The truth is that nowadays (textbooks) in which authors write exclusively about the suffering of their own nations (ethnic groups) and the guilt of other side are dominant,” Agicic said.

It’s a similar story when it comes to the war in Bosnia.

While Croatian textbooks say the war began in April 1992 when “Serbian forces launched an aggression on Bosnia”, Bosnian Serb schoolchildren learn that the war “was waged among three national armies: Muslim, Serb and Croat.”

An analysis of textbooks in Bosnia conducted by the non-governmental Open Society Fund concluded that each of the three ethnic groups emphasized their own role in history, often employing stereotypes to the others.

“Therefore Bosniaks (Muslims) see themselves as a founding nation of Bosnia while others (Serbs and Croats) are seen as trying to demolish the state”.

On the other hands “Serbs see themselves as perpetual victims” and Croats feel “discriminated by the others”, the study showed.

The analysis concluded that by only talking about their own ethnic groups and neglecting the contribution of others, the history books actually “hamper the process of integration (of ethnic groups) as is illustrated by students’ statements that ‘Bosnia exists only on paper’.”

Historian Stojanovic said young generations are growing up with “horrible stereotypes”.

“They are more conservative about the past and their neighbours then people in their 60s. They are more xenophobic, ethno-centrist and nationalistic” than those waging the wars in the 1990s, she warned.

Stojanovic is part of a regional project which unites 60 Balkans historians who will provide aditionals teaching materials offering sources from all sides leaving students to draw their own conclusions.

But her Croatian colleague Agicic stressed that textbooks are not the determining factor as children are more likely to be influenced by their parents, the media and social surroundings.

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