Conflict and reconciliation in the schools of Eastern Slavonia

The UN is needed there in the future

By Jan Oberg

November 27, 1997

TFF PressInfo 29

Summary

A United Nations mission consisting of Civil Affairs and Civil Police should remain in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium in the Republic of Croatia, after its mandate expires on January 15. UNTAES, the present mission, has achieved impressive results within its very short period of work.

However, vital work remains to be done to provide psychological security, reconciliation and the provision of socio-economic development and equal rights and opportunities for all citizens.

The OSCE, UN as well as international and local NGOs should now give priority to the psycho-social aspects of re-integration. Otherwise many Serbs may leave and Croats not return. If so, the UN and the Croatian government will have failed and we shall witness yet another refugee catastrophe in the Balkans.

UNTAES had asked TFF to analyse and help mitigate conflicts in the school sector of the region.

We conclude that there are still serious problems concerning minority rights, democracy and participation, language and biased textbooks, teachers’ security and overall psychological well-being. More funds are also needed for reconstruction and employment-creation to secure the desired two-way return of Croats and Serbs to where they lived before the war.

There are very few signs of forgiveness. There is a serious feeling of frustration, insecurity and hurt amongst Serb teachers, students and their parents that needs urgently to be addressed. Even young Serbs who are Croatian citizens and want to stay are highly uncertain about their future.

These problems are not insoluble if future missions focus clearly on the human dimensions of reconciliation and long-term community- and peacebuilding and their staff be selected accordingly.

Below we have listed the problems and suggest some initiatives that we think will be helpful.

_________

The mission of UNTAES is the peaceful reintegration of the region of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium into the Republic of Croatia. UNTAES has exercised authority over this region through a basic agreement of 12 November 1995 and through UN Security Council resolutions 1037 of 15 January 1996 and 1120 of 11 July 1997 but the current mandate ends on 15 January 1998.

The UN Security Council will decide any further role of the UN in early December. The UNTAES mission must not be prematurely withdrawn. The human rights and obligations of the Serbs of Eastern Slavonia should be upheld. If a large number of the remaining Serbs, around 80.000, decide to leave their country, the UN mission will have failed. This requires continual monitoring.

International assistance must be made available immediately to assist the Croatian government to implement its national Programme on the Re-establishment of Trust, Accelerated Returns and the Normalisation of Living Conditions in War-Affected Regions of Croatia as announced on October 2 1997. We are glad that Croatian President Franjo Tudjman on November 21 suggested a UN Civil Police mission remain for up to nine months.

However, we urge the UN to consider a new mandate that from 16 January 1998 would permit at least some Civil Affairs personnel to remain in the region together with Civilian Police.

It is vitally important that this and other missions include professionals in socio-psychological development and community-building and that their mandate focus on empowerment of the government, local authorities and NGOs so that they themselves can sustain the process when international missions are withdrawn.

The Transnational Foundation had been requested by UNTAES to conduct a conflict-mitigation mission to the schools in the UNTAES region. In November our team, welcomed by the Croatian Ministry for Education and Sports and funded by the Swedish government, analysed the conflicts in selected schools, offered short seminars and planned follow-up activities there in December with a view to stay ceased with the matter in 1998.*

Below follows a short summary of our findings and recommendations.

 

I. LESSONS LEARNED

* On the human dimensions.

UNTAES has achieved impressive results within its very short period of work. However, while its attention and that of the international community has been on demilitarisation, technical matters and political issues, the human aspects in the process of integration and development of the region and of Croatia in general have been overlooked. Serbs feel powerless, disillusioned with the Croatian government and, to some extent, also with what the UN has done in the field of socio-psychological assistance. There is a serious feeling of frustration, insecurity and hurt amongst Serb teachers, students and their parents that needs urgently to be addressed.

 

* On democracy.
The Ministry’s vertical structure, lack of consultation and a less-than-optimal information system seem to produce insecurity and a fear of doing wrong bordering on paralysis. It also decreases effectiveness. Principals whom we have met with seemed to be people of good will and intention but experiencing their situation as quite unpleasant, posed as they are between teachers/students “below” and regional-national ministerial authorities “above.”

 

* On human rights.
Serb students and teachers are now Croatian citizens but they feel that their identity as Serbs is not being adequately recognised and affirmed. The best way to teach human rights is to create an environment and a school system that produces a feeling for and satisfaction with rights; this however, is far from the case in the schools we have visited.

Rather, rules, directives, orders and the system created is experienced as deficient, bordering on potential future ethnic cleansing by bureaucratic means. Most of this hits people of Serb/Yugoslav ethnic background.

Students insist that they did not cause the war, that the war has stolen the joy of their childhood, and that their future lies in being reconciled with their Croatian peers.

 

* On media
Anger is strongly felt about the very hostile anti-Serb stories and rhetoric put out already within school text books and broadcast by the media. Such hostile stereotyping and extremely biased versions of the civil war may fuel further violence and are entirely contrary to the agreement signed by the Croatian government imposing a moratorium on teaching about the war period.

 

* On readiness for reconciliation.
The national program for trust-building seems to have little foundation in the field. Regional and local committees were being established during our mission, some surprisingly staffed with members of the transitional police. We have found little evidence of any deliberate, focused effort to make Serb minority youth feel good, welcome and respected as the Croatian citizens they are and clearly want to be in the future.

 

* On knowledge and resources being wasted.
The Croatian principals that have been imposed on Serbian schools find themselves in an impossible situation. This situation was not of their own making.

Many Serb teachers who can teach Croatian because it is the same language and have lived in Croatia for many years have had their contracts discontinued. Serbs with FRY citizenship who taught in Croatia before the war do not teach even where their competence is needed and other (Croatian) teachers have not arrived. The reason given is that they are not paid anymore as they are not Croatian citizens. This victimises the students and adds to ethnic divisions.

It would have been natural to establish certain procedures for a transitional period of, say, 6-12 months during which these problems could have been solved in a more flexible, smooth manner.

Double citizenship providing “double scholarship” would have been natural had students’ intellectual interests and future possibilities rather than political considerations been given priority. Unfortunately, FRY/Serbia is opposed to the principle of double citizenship.

 

* On language.
The tendency to see Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian as two increasingly different languages causes a lot of confusion in the schools. This problem seems to be created by leading authorities on both sides and prevents a feeling of sharing problems and working together to solve them.

 

* On perceived insecurity.
Final year students are worried about their prospects of graduating well next May due to uncertainties about recognising their achievements with the previous school curriculum, the need to adjust to the new Croatian curriculum, the lack of text books, etc.

Too many we have met during these two weeks express anxiety about the future. We have no reason to believe that this is “Serb propaganda” given the way this sentiment has been conveyed to us. There is anxiety about who will guard their interests when the UNTAES mission leaves on 15 January 1998.

It is not enough for the Croatian government, nor for the international community, to assert that the situation has improved over time (which it has), neither to state that these citizens have no objective reason to feel like that. The individual perception is what counts, and it is – overall – not good. Fear and democracy cannot co-exist.

 

* On evolving demographic change.
It seems that the latter problems are related to the Croatian government’s idea that displaced Croat students and teachers will soon return to various areas while simultaneously displaced Serbs will move back to their place of origin in Croatia or leave for permanent residence elsewhere.

However, the overall reconstruction of towns, infrastructure and the provision of safe return and safe residence at original places is currently inadequate and is bound to take a long time. In addition, Croats do not seem to be eager to return to the region.

Therefore, the establishment of a presumed future ethnic composition of citizens, teachers and principals in the present post-war reality is bound to create tension, psychological insecurity and conflicts. To establish Croatian management in majority Serb schools is an example of this and should be replaced by a policy of adapting the school situation to the overall real situation in society as it undergoes change.

The present policy can be perceived as indicative of an overall intention to have Serbs leave the country. As we take for granted that this is not the Croatian government’s policy, something must be done to change this perception which is a serious obstacles to overall reconciliation and might impair the image of Croatia abroad.

 

II. WHAT CAN BE DONE

+ The interests of Croatia, its leadership and all citizens would be served if more sensitivity, generosity and reconciliation be given to its Serb citizens both for its reputation and security within Croatia and for its recognition as a democratic government within the Council of Europe and the wider international community.

+ Assistance should be offered to the Croatian government on practical ways to implement a policy of national reconciliation and trust building that would involve training in conflict management and in the skills and emotions of healing inter-ethnic relations after the violence of the war. Such programs should include at least the school sector and the media. Radio and television should be oriented to instil tolerance, forgiveness and cooperation.

+ Appropriate Serb principals should be appointed to schools in which over 80% of the teachers and pupils are Serbs. Croats should be appointed in less senior roles including those of Deputy Principal.

+ NGO’s in Croatia especially in the centres of higher education, Osijek and Zagreb, and especially those concerned with human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation should be supported to intensify their work for mutual understanding, trust and security between Serb and Croat students.

+ Text books including those in the Serb language and Cyrillic script should be issued urgently especially to final year students. An agreement should be settled with Serb teachers and students about the proportion of the school curriculum devoted to Serb history, literature and language.

+ Special attention should be given to empowering young people to decide their own lives and futures in a situation charged with hostile emotions that is not of their making. Teachers and students must be helped to form interest organisations and link up with others throughout Croatia and internationally.

+ The moratorium on teaching about the civil war should be strictly observed, whether it be through history, literature, geography or any other subject. During this moratorium textbooks and other materials must be produced so that this period of history can be dealt with later. The events of the civil war should be presented from both Croat and Serb points of view and an assessment of these events should be given also from both perceptions.

+ School books containing hostile rhetoric against any group should be withdrawn immediately.

+ An inter-ethnic council of national reconciliation and trust building should be established charged with responsibility of examining all teaching materials and also stories disseminated by the media to determine whether they contain material that would inflame inter-ethnic tension. This council should have the right and duty to appeal to the Croatian government and to the international community about instances of racial discrimination and inflammatory material in the expectation that such malpractice will be stopped and the perpetrators brought to justice.

+ Serb teachers should be given opportunities for retraining and acquiring qualifications in higher education to compensate for opportunities that were denied to them during the war period and its aftermath.

+ Training for everyone in the educational sector in dealing effectively with conflicts and problem-solving. Training efforts must address the real situation in the school sector.

+ The school system should be democratised and local self-government introduced.

+ It is urgently desirable that the discussion move away from national issue towards essential issues of pedagogy and education, that is to areas of common interests among students, teachers, principals and the Ministry.

+ Schools should be seen as centres of social learning of human skills, as community centres for all, and as focal points for the development of a culture for peace in accordance with, e.g. the norms of UNESCO and the Convention of the Rights of Children and Youth.

+ The national and local trust-building program committees should have at least one member trained professionally in relevant subjects such as social work, psychology, forgiveness or reconciliation.

+ It is urgently needed that more Croat students all over Croatia be given an opportunity to experience what conflict-resolution and reconciliation means. A winner mentality is incompatible with reconciliation.

+ With a view to the post-UNTAES period, some kind of government and NGO hotlines and information network should be established between the field and the international community.

+ Also with a view to the post-UNTAES period, a well thought-through security for the region should be established, preferably by means of demilitarisation on both sides of the international border, a fairly widespread NGO presence and a combination of OSCE, Council of Europe and other presence of the international community, coupled with elaborate consultative procedures among actors in the region and the Croatian government.

TFF team members were Kerstin Schultz, Bachelor of Science in social work, Dr. Peter Jarman and Dr. Jan Oberg.

 

November 27, 1997

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