Inside a Divided City – A Report from Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje

The ethnic war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, taking place from 1992-1995, was one of the worst armed conflicts in Europe after World War 2. Between 1 and 2 million people became refugees or were internally displaced within the country. Around 150,000 to 200,000 people died. In 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords officially ended the war, but more than 20 years later, ethnic segregation is still in place in the country – which will be demonstrated by the following example.


What is life in a segregated place like? During my Master’s thesis last year, I tried to answer this question by examining the ethnically divided city Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje, located in central Bosnia, and one of the most prominent examples of politically maintained segregation in the country.


Furthermore, the city is insofar interesting as it has a long history of ethnic cohabitation: Catholic Croats lived side by side with Muslim Bosniaks for centuries. There was also a small Serb population in the area. Life was peaceful and cooperative before the war. The heterogenous setup of the area, however, made the conflict especially brutal: each party tried to gain as much territory as possible in order to secure its survival. Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje played a huge role in the Bosniak-Croat (1992-1994) conflict during the Bosnian war (1992-1995) as it was strategically located. The fighting led to large refugee movements, human loss and resettlement of whole villages.


Today, there is peace in Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje, but the situation is far from ideal: ethnic segregation is still in place. From politics to the minds of the people. As peace scientists would put it: There is negative peace (the absence of war) but no positive peace (absence of war plus reconciliation and integration).


“Do not mingle – do not cross the line”


It all starts with its official name: Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje. The first name is used by Bosnian Muslims (i.e. Bosniaks) and the second by Bosnian Croats. During Yugoslav rule, the official name was Gornji Vakuf, but after the war in Bosnia, Croats requested to rename it to Uskoplje which had been used before the Second World War. Today, both city names are used officially in order not to offend either of the two ethnic groups.


Not only does this town of only 20,000 inhabitants have two names, it is also physically divided: in the middle of the city centre runs an invisible segregation border – the main road. Bosniaks live on one side of the city, and Croats on the other side. This strongly resembles Mostar – a city in South-Eastern Bosnia that is also divided along ethnic lines.


Right after the war, the municipalities were also separate in Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje, but they were united in 2001 under pressure from the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.


The other problem is that there is no common social life in the city, no common cultural events or much interaction otherwise. The bars and restaurants are either Bosniak or Croatian and it is very unlikely that one visits a bar of the “other” group – a term widely used in this small town.


Nevertheless, despite the visible segregation, the situation seems to be getting slightly better: For a very long time, the weekly Wednesday market – famously called pijaca in Bosnian or Croatian – was the only common gathering in town. Last year, however, the traditional Croatian folk festival “Uskoplje autumns” hosted a Bosniak group for the very first time. Furthermore, there are new supermarket chains which employ people from both ethnicities. This is not the solution to the problem, but a small step towards a more inclusive future.


A segregated childhood – no common future


One of the main problems remaining in the city is the segregated school system. Children of different backgrounds attend separate classes at school.


The concept is infamously called “Two schools under one roof” and it means exactly what it sounds like. The school in Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje is located on the Croatian side of the city, and while the Bosniaks also use it, they do so in different shifts. Croat students  go to school in the mornings and Bosniak ones in the afternoons or vice versa. According to the youth, there is almost no interaction during the breaks and the teachers advise students not to mingle. This whole situation is insofar perplexing as the children of both ethnic groups basically speak the same language (formerly called Serbo-Croatian) and share similar cultural traits.

Schools are normally a place of diversity and inclusion, but not in this case. From a very young age, children learn that segregation is normal and diversity undesirable. Instead of working towards a common future, politicians encourage the status quo, including in the educational sector.


Despite this rather bleak reality in the school sector, there has been made some improvement in this respect: A few years ago, common classes were implemented in vocational schools. As a consequence, Bosniak and Croat children interact a little bit more with each other. However, the most critical subjects such as history, geography and language remain separate. Every ethnic group is taught another version of the state’s history, language and war.


The lack of a common narrative or common history in schools is an obstacle to a multiculturalism and impedes a common future as children that grow up in a segregated system will more likely turn into adults that do not have a multiculturalist outlook.



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