Archive for August 2009

Bosnia’s ethnic divisions are evident in schools

August 25, 2009

By AIDA CERKEZ-ROBINSON (AP) – 22 Aug. 2009 STOLAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina — It’s shortly after noon, and teenagers who were taught their capital is Zagreb, in neighboring Croatia, are streaming out of Stolac High School. In an hour, their classrooms will be filled with children who have learned that their capital is Sarajevo, Bosnia. Fourteen years after Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, youngsters from Muslim Bosniak and Roman Catholic Croat families attend the same schools, but are separated from each other and learn from different textbooks. With the Bosnian Serbs already holed up in their own part of the country, critics say the Balkan nation’s school system is one of the worst examples of segregation in Europe — one that’s producing a generation ripe for manipulation by nationalists. Tiny Bosnia is home to just 3.5 million people, yet its schools are governed by 14 ministries, many run by people who favor segregation. Vedran Zubic, a high school teacher in the capital, Sarajevo, sees the separation as a continuation of wartime nationalist rhetoric. “We have a generation of young, intolerant, ethnically isolated and ethnically overfed pupils who are being used as weapons of nationalist politicians,” he said. The Stolac school is an example of Bosnia’s postwar emphasis on “two schools under one roof.” It was designed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as an urgent but temporary response to the problem of educating the children of parents who had ventured back to their prewar homes in towns subjected to ethnic cleansing. During the war, Croats drove the majority Bosniak population out of Stolac, a southeastern town near the Croatian border. Those who returned found the town’s schools were using Croatian history books. Bosnian Croats are taught they are members of the Croatian nation living in a Croat province in Bosnia. Almost 99 percent of Bosnian Croats have Croatian passports and vote in Croatian elections. Before the former Yugoslavia crumbled in the 1990s, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks attended school together and studied from uniform textbooks distributed by the communist government. But the war opened a chasm between Bosnia’s ethnic groups, and the peace accords that followed split the country into a Serb mini-state and a Bosniak-Croat federation. Separation since has become a way of life. Unwilling to have their kids learn the history and language of a neighboring country, Bosniak returnees formed a school for their children in a private home where Bosnian language and history was taught. Predominantly Muslim Bosniaks, for example have been taught in geography books that “Muslims don’t attack sacred objects, unlike others,” while mainly Catholic Croats learned that “Muslims are an ethnic group and not a religion.” The OSCE mission in Bosnia, in charge of overseeing education, pressed Croat school managers to allow the Bosniaks to use the school building at least in the afternoon. The first day, Croat school staff piled up chairs and desks to build a barrier separating the children. The U.S. Embassy in Bosnia even invited Martin Luther King III, the son of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., to talk to teachers and students about human rights and segregation. But in Stolac, King found, his father’s famous dream remains just that: a dream. As he spoke, Croat students sat up front; Bosniaks took the chairs in the back. Merima Tabakovic, a 17-year-old Bosniak student, points to flagrant examples of discrimination in Stolac’s classrooms: She said Bosniak students cannot enter the school before the afternoon, even if it’s raining. “In the winter, they switch off the heating as soon as the second shift starts,” added another student, Azra Isakovic. And students rarely broach the issue of segregation with one another. “It’s taboo,” she said. Claude Kiffer, who runs the OSCE education department, said it was supposed to be a temporary solution until a new, countrywide curriculum was adopted. But that never happened, and the Stolac model spread throughout the part of the country shared by Bosniaks and Croats. Today, more than 50 schools operate like this. Now, nongovernmental organizations and the OSCE are urging an end to segregation. Education, they contend, should have been a part of the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war, but in 1995, few understood the damage that segregated schools could inflict in the long run. “The absence of genuine education reform designed to bring future citizens together undermines all other reforms so far,” Kiffer said. The system, he added, is producing “three sets of citizens who do not know anything about the others, have no intercultural skills.” He warns: “In the longer term, this may contribute to the breakup of the country.” David Skinner of Save the Children says about half of all peace pacts worldwide fail after five years because neglected school systems don’t produce citizens with critical thinking skills. The nonprofit group recently organized an international conference in Sarajevo where participants urged the U.N. to include education in future peace agreements. That way, Skinner said, “we can start reducing the number of peace agreements that fail.”


Pakistan: Who’s Attacking the Christians?

August 6, 2009

The intruders wore masks and carried guns. They went door to door, through the narrow and dusty alleyways, asking if there were any Christians inside. When the terrified faces inside replied yes, they poured chemicals on the small, redbrick homes of Episcopalians and Evangelicals, setting them ablaze. In some cases, they didn’t bother with the question. Instead, they opened fire and hurled rocks, forcing families to flee in a panic — moments before fresh flames consumed their homes as well. When the attackers were done, nine people had been killed and 45 homes lay smoldering and destroyed in the clustered Christian colony in Gojra, a town in central Punjab, marking the worst anti-Christian violence Pakistan has seen in recent years. A tearful woman crouches over rubble outside the attackers’ first target. “Look what they have done to our church,” says Shahida William, the wife of the pastor, pointing at the deeply blackened one-room Faith Bible Church. Inside, bricks are strewn across the floor. The stinging smell of the chemicals used still hangs in the air. A few houses down, Ethel Gill points to nine bullet holes that have been punched into the top story of her home. “They threw rocks and bricks at us. Then they opened fire. We cowered for safety and ran away, jumping over roofs of other houses. We eventually found sanctuary in a church.” She shows the remains of her Urdu language Bible: “Look at our holy book. The pages are all burnt. Is this not desecration?” (See pictures of the ethnic rivalries that lie beneath the surface of Pakistan.) The roots of the attack lie in Korian, a village five miles away from Gojra. There, a Christian family was celebrating a wedding on July 28 when, somehow, a rumor spread alleging that the revelers had torn the pages of the Quran and thrown them in the air. No evidence has emerged that this actually happened. But the mere suggestion appeared to set off days of rioting. Christian homes in Korian were torched, before the violence spread to Gojra. Last Friday, Christian residents say, the preacher at a nearby mosque issued a fiery sermon inciting violence against them. The police visited the Christian community later that night, warning them of possible violence the next day. Some left that very night. But it appears others didn’t receive the warning, and were present when thousands of Muslim protesters charged through the town. Clashes ensued between the advancing Muslim crowd and the much smaller group of Christians trying to push them back. The police were caught in the middle for some time, before they, for reasons that remain unclear, melted away. Some members of the Christian community allege that the police stood by as a group of armed men mounted their attack. Paramilitary forces were dispatched on Sunday, but their arrival came too late, residents say. Authorities and human rights groups now suspect that the attackers belonged to the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a sectarian militant group from the nearby town of Jhang. A senior member, Qari Saifullah, served as Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud’s righthand man and trained scores of suicide bombers. The group’s even more vicious offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is considered al-Qaeda’s front in Pakistan. The enduring and undisturbed presence of Sipah-e-Sahaba and other militant groups in central and southern Punjab has led many analysts to predict that the militants will open up their next front here. Already, the Pakistan army has said that “splinter groups” from Jaish-e-Mohammad have been fighting alongside the Taliban in Swat. And Punjab is also home to front groups of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the outlawed militant group that was blamed for last November’s Mumbai massacre. (See pictures of the long journey of the lone surviving Mumbai gunman.) The Gojra tragedy has sparked outrage across Pakistan. The government has ordered a judicial commission to investigate what happened and parliament passed a unanimous resolution condemning the violence. Islamabad’s gestures, however, have done little to assure Pakistan’s estimated 3 million Christians, who are 60% Catholic, 40% Protestant (the second largest religious minority after Hindus). Many now question whether they can remain safe in a country that has long neglected them, and continues to have blasphemy laws that have been repeatedly exploited by violent extremists. “This isn’t the first time that this has happened,” says Pastor William, who heads the burnt one-room church. Similar episodes of broke out in the towns of Shantinagar in 1997, and Shangla Hill in 2005. Just last month, accusations of blasphemy triggered violence in four different towns in Punjab. On Tuesday, two people were killed in the town of Muridke after a similar accusation was raised. In each case, says Pastor William, blasphemy laws are used as a pretext for attacks on religious minorities. Anger is now spreading in Pakistan’s Christian community. On Wednesday, riots broke out in Lahore’s Youhanabad neighborhood, where stick-wielding Christian protestors smashed buses and property. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the colonial era. The late military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq introduced a further, harsher clause as part of his sweeping “Islamization” program. Human rights groups have long appealed to successive government to repeal or amend these laws. The current ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party, vowed to do so in its election manifesto. As yet, nothing has been done. But presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar says that the Gojra tragedy “has increased the urgency of revisiting these laws”.


 By Omar Waraich

Serbs’ Claim of Kosovo Organ Ring Is Investigated

August 4, 2009

Europe’s leading human rights group began an investigation on Monday into Serb allegations that Serbian civilians were abducted in Kosovo during the Kosovo war of 1998-99 and taken to Albania, where their organs were extracted for sale before they were killed.

The inquiry, by the Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, France, is being led by Dick Marty, a Swiss senator, who previously investigated the existence of alleged secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons in Europe used to interrogate terrorist suspects. The Council said Mr. Marty would meet this week with leading war crimes officials and human rights groups in Serbia and Albania.

Distrust between the two groups remains high even a decade after the war, with each side accusing the other of atrocities. Serbian war crimes investigators are now alleging that up to 500 Serbs from Kosovo disappeared during the Kosovo war. Ethnic Albanian guerrillas fought Serb forces under the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in a conflict over control of Kosovo in which 10,000 people were killed, most of them ethnic Albanians.

Ethnic Albanian officials in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, have strenuously denied the allegations, saying they are politically motivated and aimed at undermining Kosovo, which defied Serbia by declaring independence last year. Serbia considers Kosovo its cultural heartland.

Serbian investigators say they have evidence that at least 10 people were abducted by ethnic-Albanian guerrillas as part of an alleged underground trafficking operation in which the guerrillas made use of a network of hidden hospitals in Albania to extract organs, before dumping the bodies of victims into mass graves.

The allegations surfaced publicly last year in a memoir by Carla Del Ponte, the former chief United Nations prosecutor for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. In the book, Ms. Del Ponte claims, based on what she describes as credible witnesses and reports, that after NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, ethnic Albanian guerrillas transported hundreds of Serbian prisoners into Northern Albania, where they were killed and their organs “harvested” and trafficked out of Tirana, the Albanian capital.

When the book was published, ethnic Albanian officials and many analysts questioned why Ms. Del Ponte had chosen to reveal the allegations five years after her investigators examined the claims. They also noted that the inquiry had failed to provide enough evidence to form a case.