Back from the battlefield to teach

Bosnia. The third cutting of hay has been stacked and the plum harvest is safely in. A horse and cart make slow progress along a pot-holed road. In gardens and farmyards, families are busy building neat piles of logs for winter. The school playgrounds resound to the noise of children shouting and the forested hills glow with autumn fire.

It is, it seems, an idyllic scene of rural life. But in the neighbourhood of Velika Kladusa, a small town in north-east Bosnia, close to the Croatian border, nothing is quite what it seems.

The logs are vital insurance against recurring power shortages. The potholes are mainly the result of shelling, the mined hills are an evil threat to life, and the children, attending school on a staggered timetable, are trying to make up time lost during three and a half years of war, and especially last year.

This was when Velika Kladusa became a battleground fought over by supporters of the town's dubiously successful businessman, Fikret Abdic, and the locally-recruited Fifth Army Corps which, supported by Croatia, finally forced Abdic, still promoting his ideas for an autonomous region ruled over by himself, to flee the country. During this most local of Bosnia's many continuing battles, 36,000 people were displaced, of which 13,000 still remain unaccounted for.

Now, however, life is returning to normal, the pockmarked houses the only visible sign of the bitter time when neighbour fired upon neighbour.

Kadric Rasim, deputy director of one of the town's two primary schools, is a survivor - just. His blue metal crutches, leaning against his office desk, are a reminder of the months he spent fighting in the hills in defence of his town.

"I was a good teacher for many years," he says, "but then I was arrested because I didn't agree with the idea of autonomy." He was arrested six times and, on one occasion, his wife and 10-year-old daughter were arrested as well. When the children from the outlying villages were unable to get to school, he went to their homes, under fire, to teach them. In the end, he joined the Fifth Corps and moved into the hills.

Now he looks forward to a peaceful return to teaching, aware, however, that he faces new challenges.

The main one is that of helping the children deal not only with the trauma of war but with the special problems of living in a town whose continuing political divide is rarely acknowledged.

" We've been working on this for the last year, but it's an on-going process. The children come to school thinking not with their own minds but with the minds of their parents," he says.

While fighting with the Fifth Corps, he was based in the nearby town of Buzi. "It's a very old, medieval town and once had another name, but some of these things have been kept from us. We were given only the Serb version of history. Now, we have to devise new textbooks, write a new version of it all."

Before the war, the teaching of Islamic studies was an optional extra, availed of only by Muslims. Now, the subject is compulsory - a policy which some parents see as a threat to the tolerance which, they feel, is vital to the survival of what is left of Bosnia's multicultural community.

For Kadric Rasim, however, there is no problem: "If parents want to withdraw their children from Islamic classes, then they can," he says.

Whether they will or not is another matter. To do so could be seen as being, at best, ungrateful and, at worst, treacherous toward the party whose green Islamic flag now flies side by side with that of the country's national flag.

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