Serbia’s Bosniaks Rediscover Their Roots

Bosniak students at a pilot high school in Novi Pazar say they have no problem with their Serb compatriots but still welcome the chance to learn about their own history in more depth. Photo by Uffe Andersen.

Bosniak students at a pilot high school in Novi Pazar say they have no problem with their Serb compatriots but still welcome the chance to learn about their own history in more depth. Photo by Uffe Andersen.

NOVI PAZAR | In late February, high school student Ajla Bugaric took the stage in this city of roughly 100,000 to recite “Why Venice Is Sinking,” the poet Abdulah Sidran’s tribute to multiculturalism and the Bosniak nation.

“I look up into the sky above Venice,” Bugaric recited. “Nothing’s changed, in the last / seven billion years. Up above, is God. He / created the universe, in the universe seven billion / worlds, in each world numberless peoples, a multitude / of languages, and for each world – a Venice.”

The poem goes on to describe the Bosniak people, Slav Muslims who make up the majority in Serbia’s Sandzak region on the border with Montenegro, as “meek” or “peaceful.” It’s a message of national identity few Bosniak children will have heard in Sandzak schools, where the curriculum has traditionally focused on the Serbian nation and where – optional – classes in their mother tongue, Bosnian, are offered only twice a week.

But that’s about to change. When the new school year begins in September, Bosniak primary and secondary students in Sandzak will be able to study in Bosnian and take new “national culture” courses in Bosniak history, literature, music, and art.

The poetry reading was part of a celebration on 21 February, International Mother Language Day, to mark the launch of the pilot program in 12 schools. The day was carefully chosen to start this “new era for the Bosniak people in Serbia,” Bosniak National Council President Esad Dzudzevic said in a speech.

Responsible for shaping local policy on culture, media, and education, the council is one of the several state-financed bodies representing Serbia’s ethnic minorities. Dzudzevic called the new Bosniak curriculum – nine years in the works – among its most significant achievements, returning to Bosniaks “their self-confidence and self-respect as they get to know and value their language, history, and culture.”

And despite longstanding international concern that such a change could reinforce ethnic division in a region still struggling toward reconciliation after the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, everyday Bosniaks are also enthusiastic.

Being taught in Bosnian, “we get to know our culture as it’s been passed down to us through our own writers, and through our forefathers,” said Emin Melajac, a first-year student at the only pilot high school in Novi Pazar, the Sandzak’s largest city.



The new curriculum should be in place by September. Teachers have been trained, and new Bosnian language and literature textbooks printed. Texts for history, art, and music are being translated from Serbian, with 15 to 60 percent Bosniak content added, while those on subjects like math and science will be straight translations.

Bosniak students who participate will be taught in separate classrooms. Students may opt out, as some probably will, according to Elijas Rebronja, president of the Bosniak council’s board of education.

Sandzak became part of Serbia after the Ottoman Empire was driven from the region in the First Balkan War, from 1912 to 1913. As part of Yugoslavia, Bosniaks here, like other constituent nations in the federation, complained that their cultural identity was suppressed. Since the collapse of Yugoslavia, they have continued to be taught primarily Serbian culture in the Serbian language.

Some Belgrade commentators call it a waste of money to translate Serbian textbooks into Bosnian, as many across the Balkans consider Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, and Montenegrin part of the same language – Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian.

But Rebronja stressed that the new curriculum is more about “the content of the national subjects” than language instruction, a point echoed by Melida Rebronja, Elijas’ wife and a teacher at the Novi Pazar school. Rebronja said her students know all about Serbian Orthodox Saints – useful information, she acknowledged, given that they live in Serbia. “But shouldn’t they know their own roots, as well?” she said.

Under an accord on the rights of minorities in Europe that Serbia signed on to in 2001, and a subsequent national law, the Bosniaks of Sandzak are entitled to study in their mother tongue. But that right has taken years to become a reality.

Bosniaks are the third largest of the more than 20 minorities in Serbia – behind Hungarians and Roma – but according to Dzudzevic, the Bosniak council president, the last to realize their right to native school curriculum, which isn’t being introduced nationwide because schools outside Sandzak have few Bosniak students.

Some blame the delay on Belgrade, but others see little nefarious about it.

“[Serbian leaders] form our destinies, and force that on us which is not ours,” said a middle-aged man in Novi Pazar.

Nonsense, a woman standing nearby said. “We’re late because the process just wasn’t started. At least, I never heard of it.”

The truth is less clear-cut than either suggests in a place with various domestic and international stakeholders, as well as a delicate, post-conflict ethno-political landscape. In 2004, the Bosniak National Council demanded education in Bosnian, and talks were held with the central government, which must approve any curriculum changes, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. During the negotiations, Bosniak media claimed the OSCE backed the Bosniak council, but the organization balked,releasing a statement that it did “not support a division of the society along ethnic lines on the basis of claims that refer to the right to learn one’s mother tongue.”

Ultimately, the OSCE backed the current, twice weekly optional Bosnian language instruction. Introduced in 2005, it was intended as a transitional program, according to the Bosniak council’s Rebronja, but then came “a vicious cycle” of bureaucratic delays in Belgrade that he suggests were political, saying, “administration is always connected to intention.”

The Serbian Education Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. Officially, the previous government, led by the now-opposition Democratic Party, did not oppose the introduction of the Bosniak curriculum in Sandzak. While the Bosniak council continued to push for it, the issue fell largely off the public agenda, though not that of the international community.

The “introduction of Bosnian language texts and instruction in the schools will cause students to divide further on the basis of religion and ethnicity,” the International Crisis Group think tank wrote in a 2005 report. This could lead to “further polarization and self-imposed ethnic apartheid.”

The ICG warned the Bosniak National Council that “… insisting” on Bosnian “is rapidly undermining peaceful coexistence in Sandzak.”

Despite the international community’s concerns and hostility from a Bosniak splinter group, the council successfully negotiated the new curriculum with Belgrade in summer 2012.

Rebronja said the current Serbian government – formed after the May 2012 general elections by former nationalists turned pro-European – has been more cooperative than the previous leadership.

“While the state today doesn’t make things easier for us, it doesn’t block the implementation of our rights, either,” he said.



When asked about the new curriculum, a young woman named Nerma on a street in Novi Pazar called it “a good idea,” but recommended asking “someone younger. I’m planning to go abroad when finishing high school this summer, and really don’t know what’s going to happen here in a year or two.”

Nerma plans to study economics or banking in Turkey. In a longstanding trend, many of her peers are also Turkey-bound, she said, – “some return, but many stay.”

Indeed, when asked whether they planned to study in Turkey, around half of the pilot class students at the Novi Pazar high school raised their hands. Economics is partly to blame: in Sandzak, unemployment is 50 percent, infrastructure is abysmal, and wages are almost 25 percent below the national average. Melajac, the first-year student, blamed “discrimination in Serbia” for the region’s bleak prospects.

This speaks to the concern that the new curriculum – especially separating Bosniak and Serb students into different classrooms – might only reinforce ethnic division and perhaps stoke tensions. Neither the ICG nor the OSCE responded to requests for comment, but the Bosniak National Council’s Rebronja predicted it would have the opposite effect.

“As it is now, one people is in a disadvantaged position,” he said. Once they become equal, “the distance between the ethnic groups will become smaller.”

And this “distance” already seems far less in Sandzak than in minority enclaves in Kosovo or other parts of the Balkans where different ethnicities rarely mix. Indeed, when asked whether they have Serbian friends and generally spend time with Serbs, the pilot students responded with an enthusiastic yes, their only unanimous answer of the day. Teacher Rebronja said in her decade of teaching Serbian language and literature in ethnically mixed classes, she has never experienced any excessive ethnic tensions.

In general, most touchy are discussions about history – recent or otherwise. History textbooks will be the same for the two ethnicities, with roughly 15 percent new Bosniak material added. The texts covering recent history, including the 1990s conflicts, aren’t yet written, but when the time comes, “we’ll find solutions, just like the Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats have done in Bosnia,” said the council’s Rebronja.

While many observers fault postwar Bosnian education for reinforcing division by separating the country’s three dominant ethnic groups through a system similar to the one being introduced in Sandzak, Rebronja cited other multiethnic areas – such as Croatian-Serbian, or Hungarian-Serbian – as models.

“There are many examples, and the important thing is what people are looking for – solutions, or clashes,” he said.

In the meantime, most pilot class students said they were enthusiastic about the new curriculum. “Bosnian is our mother tongue, and of course we prefer learning that to Serbian,” Fatih Karahodzic said.

For the past few months, Melajac added, “we’ve been studying works by people who are themselves from Sandzak, or from Bosnia-Herzegovina. That’s a large plus for our education, since it’s better to know something about ourselves than about the culture and history of somebody else.”

Uffe Andersen is a freelance journalist in Smederevo, Serbia




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