Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia: Painful History Lessons

Young Serbs finally start studying the controversial events surrounding the war of independence.
By Drago Hedl

In most countries, history lessons form an uncontroversial part of the school curriculum. But not so in Croatia, where a decision to start teaching recent history to Serb minority pupils is likely to be fraught with problems.

From this autumn, Serb schoolchildren, many of whose fathers fought against the Croats in the 1991 war for independence, will be taught about the last decade or so of crisis and conflict as part of their curriculum.

For the first time, they will analyse events that they will have heard about from their parents during the conflict, which was raging when they were only a few years old.

To many it will be a shock to find out that their parents supported "the wrong side" in the conflict that the Croats call the Homeland War.

"I don't know how I'll explain it to my child if he asks me why I fought against the country I now live in," said Dusan, from Vukovar, the town virtually razed by Yugoslav army and Serbian militia forces in 1991.

Dusan was a soldier in the army of the Republika Srpska Krajina, RSK, the breakaway state that the Serbs established inside Croatia in the 1990s.

"It will be even harder if they teach him that Serbs are Chetniks [an abusive term for Serbian nationalists] and war criminals," he added. "I have nothing against children being taught about the period from the break-up of Yugoslavia to the present, but I'm afraid it won't be objective."

The peaceful reintegration of the last remnant of the RSK in eastern Croatia, Podunavlje, began in 1996, after most of the rebel entity was overrun by Croatian forces the year before.

The process was completed on January 15, 1998. It was then agreed that a moratorium - which expires this year - would be imposed on the study of recent history.

Under the two-year UN transitional administration in Podunavlje, the Croatian authorities pledged not to force Serb pupils at elementary and secondary level to study the controversial war years once they took total control of the area.

It was believed that discussing the conflict would hinder efforts to rebuild trust between the communities and raise tension.

But now the five-year moratorium has expired, the authorities have decided to tackle this thorny issue.

Most Serb local politicians broadly support the plan. "I favour lifting the moratorium, on condition we get a good textbook with proven historical facts, not a permanent reminder of ethnic hatred, especially hatred directed at the Serbian community," said Jovan Ajdukovic, president of the Joint Council of Municipalities, an umbrella organisation for Podunavlje's predominantly Serbian settlements.

Ajdukovic said the war needed to be presented objectively. He opposes use of expressions such as "Serbo-Chetnik army", the phrase the media usually use to describe Serb forces in Croatia. "Such phrases could stir up ethnic hatred," he warned.

The education ministry is drawing up a special textbook for about 4,150 Serb nationality pupils in elementary and secondary schools in the area, covering recent history.

The book will explore events preceding the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1980s to Croatia's application for European Union membership this February. The editors say war crimes will not be glossed over.

"Lifting the moratorium on history may help the development of Croatian historiography, if we avoid the influence of politics," said Milenko Stojnovic, a teacher at Vukovar's secondary school, who will start teaching recent Croatian history this autumn.

"It would be bad if recent history was all written by Hague investigators, which is what is happening today."

Most Serbs in the streets of Vukovar seem relaxed about the proposed change. They say occasional fistfights between Serbian and Croatian children stem more from juvenile rowdiness than from ethnic tension.

The precedent set by the Croatian army suggests the bitter divisions stirred up by independence are fading away.

Three years ago, Serbs from the Podunavlje area started serving in the military, after the two-year exemption from service expired in January 2000.

At the time, it was feared that forcing youngster to serve in the forces, which many of their fathers had fought against, would prove traumatic.

But everything went off painlessly. In fact, the send-off parties for young Serbs recruits were just as lavish as the parties once held for their fathers, before their conscription into the Yugoslav army.

Drago Hedl is an Osijek-based IWPR contributor