Bosnia: Battle scars fadein the classroom

25th September 1998 at 01:00
As the votes were being counted in the federal elections in Bosnia last week, staff at the Dr Ivan Merz School in Drvar in the west of the country were rebuilding their ravaged town.

Drvar - 30 miles from the Croatian border - was predominantly Serbian before the war pitted Muslims, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs against each other. Croatian forces "cleansed" it, just as the Serbs "cleansed" Croat and Muslim bases.

Today, it is home to 10,000 mainly Croat refugees. Thanks to international aid the "ghost town" is now habitable again although unemployment is still high.

The school - the only one in town for seven to 15-year-olds (Drvar also has a high school and vocational school) - opened in 1995 with 40 children and five teachers. Today, it has more than 700 pupils and 38 teachers, drawn from 48 destroyed communities. Some live in villages which are cut off during the winter snows. There are Muslims and a few Serbs among the pupils and staff.

Headteacher Ruza Kalfic, who fled Kakanj, near the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, said: "The problem isn't the nationality gap. It's that the pupils don't feel at home."

Driving to the town through 150 miles of former Serb territory in Croatia and Western Bosnia, the route - the Bosnian stretch passes through exquisite, alpine landscape - was littered with wrecked villages and hamlets, the graveyards of charred houses. Vast areas have been mined. "We'll start hearing about children who've had their legs blown off, like in Mozambique," said a soldier interviewed along the way.

Ms Kalfic knew nothing about the town prior to the opening of the school,and knew nothing about the history of the building which resembles a converted barracks.

The only decent structure appears to be a new play area outside, donated partly by Britain's Overseas Development Administration.

The school has a run-down gym and part of its ceiling is caving in. There are no laboratories, libraries or computers. Books are scarce. Ms Kalfic's office has two desks, an empty bookshelf and a typewriter. A picture of Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman together with the Pope lies discreetly on her desk.

The school lacks so many of the basics that it is hardly surprising that it is also without an educational psychologist, although of all schools it surely needs one. Its pupils have lost fathers, brothers, sisters; they have witnessed appalling atrocities.

Before the war, children in Bosnia lived under a Muslim president and studied the curriculum of communist Yugoslavia. Today Drvar forms part of the Muslim-Croat federation of Bosnia Herzegovina, but it feels Croatian. The Croatian flag is flown, Croatian currency is used and the school follows a Croatian curriculum. Optional religious studies are taught by the town's Catholic priest.

There is a shortage of qualified teachers so Krunoslav Juresic, a theology specialist, has landed a job as a German teacher. His knowledge of the language comes from three years spent in Germany as a refugee. He works two shifts a day, from 8.30am until 6pm, teaching classes that constantly change as new refugee children trickle in. He earns roughly Pounds 120 per month and gets a one-room flat rent-free.

He is also a sports teacher and he runs football and basketball teams. His family was blown apart by the war. One brother was permanently disabled while fighting Muslims with the Bosnian Croats. Another brother is in Sweden, his sister is in Germany, and his parents live in Knin, a former Serb stronghold in Croatia.

"People don't speak about the war, and certainly not in school, but you can see it on their faces," Mr Juresic said. "Many children have problems studying because they can't concentrate. Some don't open their mouths, and I have to find out whether they've learned anything at all.

"I don't have time to think about the past. We live for today." Would he stay in Drvar? "Nobody knows what will happen, but given the choice, I think all of us would just want to go home."

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