Mostar Rock School brings harmony to a city divided by ethnic differences and a history of war

Mostar Rock School Evaluation Learning To Live Together Official Banner

In Mostar, a rock school is breaking the status quo and building change that transcends school grounds. Mostar Rock School has been found by NIRAS's evaluation team to provide not only quality music education but also a space that students with different ethnicities and beliefs can call safe.

November 30, 2022
  • SDG: #4, #10
  • COUNTRIES: Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • CLIENT: Swedish Embassy in Sarajevo

A community left reeling in the aftermath of war is often racked with problems that divide its people. Take the case of Mostar, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina and home to one of the most divided communities in the country.  

At its centre stands a bronze statue of Bruce Lee, nunchucks in hand and ready for action. Yet despite its defensive stance, this metallic model of the movie star unites those living in Mostar. It does, after all, embody justice and honesty, calling to mind more peaceful times among the city’s ethnic groups. Unfortunately, tensions continue to brew in Mostar, and there is only so much a statue can do. 

Enter Mostar Rock School (MoRS), an educational establishment dedicated to bringing young people together in a safe space to study music. That music and the performing arts have the power to forge bonds is not a novel idea, and much like other artistic fields, measuring its effects requires resourceful ways.  

In 2017, the Swedish Embassy in Sarajevo started giving MoRS the support it needs to promote the building of peace among younger generations. And more recently, it enlisted the help of NIRAS to better understand how the school has impacted students, parents, and citizens within and beyond Mostar.

Mostar Rock School Banner
Students performing at a concert together, gathering a mixed crowd into one place.

Rock music education: a key to creating harmony among a divided people? 

Under the leadership of Cecilia Ljungman and Katarina Lundblad, from March to September 2022, NIRAS evaluated the degree to which MoRS is building peace in and outside its community. To do so, the evaluation team employed an inductive approach, which entailed gathering data from various sources, including:

  • two surveys;
  • 31 interviews;
  • documents like MoRS’s reports and data and lyrics composed by students;
  • five focus group discussions with students, parents, and teachers.

Collecting this data has been a complicated task. How do you measure change in a community seeped in conflict without stretching social strains further? 

“What we were being asked to do was very tricky,” Cecilia said. “How do you measure tolerance, peacebuilding and interethnic dialogue while being conscious of not contributing to tension?” For Cecilia and her team, there was only one way to go about it — through indirect means. 

The NIRAS team adopted an education-centric framework involving the four pillars of learning, namely Learning to Live Together, Learning to Do, Learning to Know, and Learning to Be. But it was Learning to Live Together that the team placed special emphasis on as it forms part of the main “concepts [that] help capture the definition of Intercultural Dialogue,” according to UNESCO’s official website. 

The other three pillars, while merely accessory to the results, were nonetheless instrumental to the evaluation process. “We didn’t want to put peacebuilding and interethnic dialogue in the centre of our interviews and discussions; we wanted to observe these from the side,” Cecilia notes. Bringing in peacebuilding from the side meant several things – not asking community members about their perception of the other upfront, not reducing peace to numbers, and not outright telling students and parents that the evaluation was to study MoRS’s influence on the post-war friction.

Mostar Rock School Performance IMG 7121
Mostar Rock School proves there is power in the performing arts and a good music education to break down the walls of a decades-long division.

MoRS Director and Founder Orhan Maslo knows this too well. Despite the apparent harmony MoRS has inspired, he maintains that the school’s sole focus is teaching rock music to the youth, not promoting peace. “Orhan wanted to bring people together, but he purposely doesn’t say, ‘We’re a peacebuilding rock 'n' roll school,’ because kids would be turned off.” Cecilia shared. “Instead, he’s walking the talk to instil values of trust, tolerance, diversity, respect, understanding, and positive gender roles among the students.” 

Learning to Live Together encompasses such values. This pillar has been described as the skill to understand and accept others regardless of their traditions, race, ethnicity, or religion and which can encourage values like empathy, acceptance, trust, and teamwork. Interview and survey questions have been based on this, albeit implicitly. And what the NIRAS team found is a testament to just how powerful a good music education can be.

Bridging a historical rift with rock music 

To grasp how severe the tension is in Mostar, one must understand that extremes are the norm and that those whose views don’t align with any side are considered outcasts in the community. “There are people in the middle who need somewhere to go, where they can feel safe and free to express who they are,” Cecilia said.  

Most structures in Mostar are divided by ethnic lines. “There are other music schools, but none of them are mixed,” Cecilia added. “Kids from different ethnic backgrounds don't normally meet in Mostar while MoRS brings them together. That's what makes it notable.” 

Equally notable are the prevailing themes that the evaluators found in their talks with students, parents, and teachers. According to the report, these were: 

  • A feeling of belonging and acceptance, which was evident in the friendships formed in school and the students’ willingness to create and perform together; 
  • Openness, acceptance, and tolerance toward others, which meant the school created a harmonious environment; 
  • Respect and understanding, which was seen in the students’ ability to listen to others’ ideas and emotions better, as well as their ability to engage in dialogue and resolve disputes. 

Additional data from surveys support these findings. Among the students surveyed, nearly 90% said they strongly agree or agree that MoRS helped improve their teamworking skills, and 81% said they felt the same in terms of MoRS making them more tolerant of others.

I grew up during the war, [and] we really were fearful that it was dangerous on the other side, that you should not cross the bridge. We made borders in our heads. And in most cases, I really felt some discomfort. But not here at MoRS.

Student at Mostar Rock School

Moreover, a total of 83% of students said they had made long-lasting friendships with fellow students from different backgrounds, while 85% of the parents agree or strongly agree their children made these types of friendships while attending the rock school.

Most of the parents also reported to have observed changes in their children’s teamworking skills, with 75% agreeing or completely agreeing that they noticed an improvement in their children’s capacity for working with others.

But more than numbers, the students’ first-hand accounts of their experience in the school speaks volumes about why MoRS’s community feels this way. Several students noted how the rock school is an “environment where diversity is actually strength.” Another described it as a place “where you can be yourself, where everyone is equal.” Other students also said they regard MoRS as a place where they can thrive and connect with those they would not have met otherwise.

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The Old Bridge stands over the Neretva River.

“I grew up during the war, and we really were fearful that it was dangerous on the other side, that you should not cross the bridge,” another student said. “We made borders in our heads. And in most cases, I really felt some discomfort. But not here at MoRS.”

The Old Bridge, which was destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 2004, arches over Neretva, a river lined with flora and surrounded by homes with stony foundations. It’s supposed to symbolise reconciliation and co-existence, UNESCO says, but has instead served as a reminder of the long-standing rift among the people in the city. With the aid of the Swedish Embassy in Sarajevo, however, MoRS is helping to make the bridge a connector rather than a divider.

A change of tune: the ripple effect of MoRS 

The world of the rock school can seem like a reality removed from the city of Mostar. In Mostar, there is a clear dichotomy between ethnic groups – children attend classes separately and duplicate institutions abound, Reuters reports. But in MoRS, ethnic differences become invisible. 

In a radical display of acceptance, students organise and perform concerts together, gathering an audience of different ethnicities and religions in one place. “Having these concerts with mixed groups – that is a huge deal in a divided city, especially because they've been doing this now for ten years and there's never been an incident,” Cecilia said.  

Interethnic friendships have also formed within the walls of MoRS, and parents, directly affected by the war, have been moved to the point of change. “In a normal, peaceful context, if a parent sends their child to a rock school, can they say they’ve changed because of it? Probably not. So for a parent to say the rock school they enrolled their child in has changed their perspective, I think that's a big deal. It means MoRS is creating ripple effects in the community,” Cecilia mused.

Mostar Rock School Performance IMG 7831
Interethnic friendships also formed in MoRS, moving parents to the point of change.

Encouraging connection and empathy among citizens 

As a small learning centre, MoRS has so far made huge strides toward change, and the evaluation revealed not only how effective the school has been in bringing Mostar citizens closer but also the factors enabling this feat. 

In the course of their evaluation, the evaluation team found that the following greatly influenced positive changes in the local community: 

  • Visionary leaders, particularly the teachers and the school’s director and founders, who are locally grounded and who instil values through action; 
  • Accessible quality education centred around culture, rock music, and the performing arts, all considered unifying forces; 
  • A safe space where one can express and find their voice. 

With regard to having a safe space, Cecilia said this has been a significant factor in creating a conducive environment for peace. “Some might find it difficult to understand, but the fact there’s a physical space where kids can be themselves and clown around and hang out with people from a different ethnic group, that’s massive. They have a space to breathe and be.”  

The team also considered “skilfully managed” relations with “local authorities and other civil society organisations” a catalyst for collaboration, tolerance, and dialogue beyond the school and Mostar. 

All these factors undeniably contribute to the school’s success, but perhaps of greatest importance is the evaluation’s and MoRS’s subtle approach to encouraging that sense of belongingness within and beyond the school. 

During an interview, one of the parents revealed what their child, a student, had said, encapsulating the essence of MoRS’s rippling influence: “The secret is in what my children told me — do not push us to reconcile, give us a good space...and let us do what we love.”

Cecilia Ljungman

Cecilia Ljungman

Managing Director

Paris, France

+33 6 77137234

Katarina Lundblad

Katarina Lundblad

Project Manager

Stockholm, Sweden

+46 8 588 318 28