A little therapeutic music-making

12th July 1996 at 01:00
Below the looming Mount Igman, the launchpad for the Serbian bombardment of Sarajevo, the village of Pazaric still bears the scars of bullets on its buildings' walls. A mile away, in the grounds of its mental hospital, simple wooden crosses mark the last resting places of dozens of former patients who starved to death there during the war.

For nearly four years, the hospital was cut off from supply lines by the Serbian forces. Before the war, 470 people lived there. Now there are 360. "A few escaped," says Dr Danilo, the hospital's director. The fate of the others is conveyed with a sigh.

In different circumstances, many of the people in the hospital could lead integrated, ordinary lives. In fact, some of the children appear quite normal; they have been left there by their parents or orphaned in the war. But special needs is a primitive science in the former Yugoslavia (it's known as defectology), and so-called experts made mistakes in their diagnoses, explains Dr Danilo.

In order to allow people to leave, the hospital needs the permission of the families. Many of the children should also be at a special school in Sarajevo, but it's only a day school; without anywhere to live the children have to be kept in Pazaric.

Dr Danilo stayed at the hospital throughout the war, with only a few of his staff. Afraid that renewed fighting could lead to another tragedy, he has converted the hospital's school building into a food store.

"Before the war they had basic education classes and skills workshops. There was a flexible curriculum directed to their individual needs. They had art and music lessons. But during the war all the professional staff left and the programme of education stopped.

"We had a little orchestra and a choir, which had won competitions against ordinary schools. But since the beginning of the war the choir hasn't functioned and they have forgotten the songs."

Nowadays, the highlight of the children's week arrives on a Monday in a bright yellow, cartoon-covered Land Rover.

Loaded with guitar, drums and all kinds of percussion instruments, the members of Community Music Sarajevo drive through the gates of the hospital to a rapturous reception.

The group's workshops mix hearty renditions of folk songs with quieter pieces, emphasising participation and listening. CMS volunteers Igor, Bekim and Zlaja also work at two special schools in Sarajevo, and they are creating computer programmes that will eventually enable severely disabled people to make music.

Igor was one of Sarajevo's top music producers before the war. But he has turned down lucrative radio and television work since the fighting stopped to devote himself, virtually unpaid, to the project.

"Mostly we work with children with learning difficulties. The most important thing is to make them feel part of the group. Then they realise that they can express themselves.

"And it really works. Last week one terrific thing happened. One child of about eight or nine who is really hyperactive - you can't keep his attention even for a moment - took an African drum and started to improvise. No one had ever explained to him how to play it; it just happened. The other kids started to listen to him and support him. It was amazing. We were entranced, watching him for half an hour."

Dr Danilo is extremely grateful for CMS's weekly visits, and can see the positive effect it has on the people, young and old, at the hospital.

"It is the best thing that anyone has done for them. They always know that the CMS volunteers are coming on a Monday and you can see that they are happy to see them. Music is very important to them - even those that cannot speak or understand anything can feel a rhythm. It brings them some kind of happiness. "

Community Music Sarajevo was set up by Serious Road Trip, a London-based aid agency specialising in child-centred projects. SRT was the first non-governmental organisation to reach Sarajevo, driving a double-decker London bus into the besieged city four weeks after the war started in 1992. Since then, they have expanded their work to include concert promotion, Aids education, art workshops and clowning. They can be contacted at 61 Bayham Place, London NWl OET; tel: O171 916 9333

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