Skip to main content

No end to the great divide

The war may be over but life in Bosnia will never be the same again.

The writer Lynne Reid Banks joined an aid agency to see how communities rent by the savagery of civil strife are finding the concepts of peace and forgiveness difficult to assimilate

A little girl called Sofif stood before us and began to recite a poem, in Serbo-Croat because this was Bosnia. We didn't know what it was about but it was delivered with great feeling. She clasped her hands to her chest andspoke strongly. At the end, we applauded.

Later, when I had the poem translated, my blood ran cold: For you, Bosnia, Our brave hearts are ready.

For our people and our faith, We are your saviours.

I love you, Bosnia!

Although for your defence I've lost a father and brother, There is still me to be your Bosnian daughter.

Dear Bosnia, you should know I love you and I always will, And I am ready to give my life, If needed.

For you, Bosnia, My dear Motherland . . .

Would Sofif, a Muslim, have recited this patriotic poem with such fervour if her class had included Croats and Serbs, as it would have done before the war? Isn't there something dangerous about the new nationalism, which is bound to affect education in post-war Bosnia, its jigsaw divisions now ethnically cleansed, its schools uni-cultural?

I was accompanying Feed The Children, a charity that earned battle-honours as one of the first into Yugoslavia in 1993. Even during the darkest days of the war their tight-packed truckloads of emergency supplies always included more than food - things like crayons, paper, handicrafts, games, toys, even playground swings. David Grubb, FTC's British founder, was once headmaster at Gillott School in Henley-on-Thames and knows how such provisions are vital for children with disrupted lives.

As soon as the Dayton Accords brought an end to the fighting, FTC began to help the education infrastructure to re-establish itself. In addition to his regular shipments David Grubb brought in wood for local carpenters to make desks, lots of basic stationery and, in bad areas, rubber boots and warm clothes to enable children to go to school. He now wants to find ways to do more and is undismayed by evidence of nationalistic fervour.

"There's always a re-affirming of cultural identities after a war. The inevitable influx of foreign investors and tourists, the coming of new leaders, will prevent extremists from keeping control over curricula or people's minds."

How can he be so sure? There is something tragic about these new divisions and the changes they are effecting.

Sofif lives in a town called Gornji Vakuf in Central Bosnia, and goes to an all-Muslim school - if you can call it that. It has no single building. Children attend classes in what were once cafes and shops scattered throughout the old town, battered by years of fighting, where now only Muslims live. The "big school" that used to be for all the children in the town is now Croats-only. Segregated education is the post-war pattern of life in microcosm.

It is not without its opponents. The school secretary of the Muslim school led us to a cafe on the unmarked border between the two sectors. There, she and some 60 other women meet regularly to talk, to hug each other, to cry and knit. They come from both communities (Gornji Vakuf is unusual in still being a mixed town.) Some have lost husbands; all have been through the intense horrors of the war that ravaged this once-mixed and pleasant place. Yet they all want to see the town reunited, the children learning together in the big school.

They claim 90 per cent of parents on both sides want this. Yet nothing is done. The Muslim teachers are grateful for what FTC and other aid organisations have done, but what they really want is their own school building. Nobody wants to build one for them, because this would set the situation in stone: two schools, two towns, a new generation of children growing up as separate and brainwashed as Catholics and Protestants "in your Northern Ireland".

An impromptu "workshop" took place involving around a dozen pupils aged from 10 to 15 to talk about their experiences of the war. We heard some grim stories; one child in 12 in Gornji Vakuf has lost a parent. When asked who favoured reuniting the two halves of the town and especially the school, many expressed a strong desire to put the past away and get back to "the way things were before".

"Our town won't be a proper town again until we do," said one passionate 11 year old. But an older girl just as passionately disagreed. "After what they did to us? After all the shooting and our awful losses? It's too soon to think of being with them again."

We walked into the Croat part of town where - give or take some pock-marked walls - one might imagine nothing had happened. Shops were full and there was an air of normality and bustle. The "big school" was bare enough - all its modern equipment, televisions, photocopiers, computers, had been "swallowed by the war" - but at least it was a school.

The headmaster admitted, when pressed, that he was aware of the difference between his school and the other. But what could be done? Nothing. The war had changed everything and it was useless even to have a personal opinion. Politicians decide these things. He and the Muslim head sometimes meet across the line for a chat, but both agree: things are as they are.

We asked the Croat pupils if they ever visited their former neighbours in the Muslim quarter. They exchanged glances and admitted they sometimes sneaked down there in a spirit of daring and curiosity. But they'd never seen the Muslim children's "school without a school" (hard to know how they missed it - it's all over the main street) and their headteacher had never told them what it was like.

Across the road, there is a place of incongruous luxury - a brand-new kindergarten, built and equipped by charity. It has 75 Croat pre-schoolers - and 3 paid staff, who seem to feel that is quite enough. The semi-supervised children play happily on their new, colourful carpet with their new toys - no fights, no crying. Yes, it was mixed before the war. Nicer? Of course. But for now, "This is the fact."

This odd passivity, the unwillingness to take a stand, the lack of faith in the power of public opinion, may be a hangover from the Communist era. Some say Tito did a poor job of letting his people grow up, so they wait for others to tell them how to run their lives. (Or how to go to their deaths.) At a Serb school in the north, the headmaster seems pleased by the new divisions. "Our Serb culture was suppressed," he growls, "now we have our own nation. We don't have to water down our culture to teach three different groups of children. "

On a frieze on the wall of the entrance hall all the national costumes of former Yugoslavia are depicted, people holding hands dancing in a line. In the middle there is a figure in the traditional baggy trouser-skirt still worn by older Muslim women. "We'll be painting her out," said the head, with grim relish.

The adults in this war were once children, children with the same eagerness to live and learn as those we'd met. When I stood before these classes, reading them stories, the awful thought came to me: Was I looking at the budding Cetniks and Ustache and Mujahaddin, the mad extremists of some future holocaust?

People like David Grubb who bring aid to this place had better do more than supply school furniture and crayons. Apart from books and teachers this country desperately needs a fresh outlook. Otherwise the Yugoslav leader who said, "This land needs blood - there must be a war every generation" may well get his wish, in the next.

Contact: Feed The Children, 82 Caversham Road, Reading RG1 8AE. Tel: 01734 584000

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you