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One voice to heal wounds

A nation riven by war hopes to bridge the divide with a single curriculum, reports Kevin Weaver

EIGHT years after the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the Second World War divided Bosnia in two, an ambitious attempt is being made to create a single curriculum for Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

At the same time the structure of elementary and secondary education is being brought into line with the rest of Europe. Currently Bosnian children begin school at the age of eight.

However, many teachers who are already underpaid and under pressure, fear that these two tasks together are too great.

Subjects such as political history and language are the biggest obstacles to a single curriculum. Officials working for Paddy Ashdown, the High Representative for Bosnia, have drawn up a draft curriculum for the more controversial subjects with the help of professors, teachers and university students.

"We need to agree and move on," said Melisa Foric, 23, a history student at Sarajevo University, who has just helped to write a history textbook for elementary and secondary schools.

Though some of Bosnia's wounds are healing, many are still raw. Exhibits in a recently opened war exhibition include a blood-spattered teacher's register, pencil case, satchel and maths book from a classroom in Mojmilo district, Sarajevo. On November 9, 1993, a shell exploded in the school, killing the teacher and three pupils. More than 20 children were injured.

Foric said one of the important tasks has been to remove "hate language", such as the use of "Chetnik aggressors" for Serbs.

But it is too soon after the fighting and division of the country into a Serb area and a Croat and Muslim federation to include the 1992-5 war in modern history lessons.

"The topics we are dealing with are neutral, although the part involving the Ottoman Empire was quite tricky," said Foric. "They are currently being scrutinised by the Serbs to see if they are acceptable."

Linguistic problems include the Serbs' Cyrillic script, and the fact that Muslims now use many Turkish words in their dialect of Serbo-Croat, while the Serbs use Russian words.

Many teachers have left the country or the profession for better conditions and wages and those who are left are the older communist-era staff whose methods are out of date. There is an acute shortage of maths, English and other language teachers, many of whom have gone to work for UN aid agencies or foreign embassies.

Alma Zecevic, 41, who has taught information technology for 13 years in a secondary school in Sarajevo, said the reform was a "fairy tale" in the face of their poverty.

She had to teach with only three ageing computers and no internet access last year, and other schools have no computers.

"I had to tell students to imagine a library with lists of books and authors when I told them about the internet," she said.

"I only get five minutes access myself as it's so expensive. Sometimes we put our money together to pay for a couple of students to go and use an internet cafe."

Teachers are having to survive on pound;200 a month and cope with discipline problems that are the war's legacy.

Thousands of children lost one or both parents during the war, and many youngsters do not see the point of studying when the unemployment rate is 40 per cent.

Amra Sarac, chief psychologist at Sarajevo's Kosevo hospital, said: "Some parents beat their kids and, without work, many have lost hope and turned to crime, drink or drugs. The trauma of one generation is being passed on to the next."

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