Fighting fear and death

1st September 1995 at 01:00
In Tuzla, children go hungry and teachers sell their possessions to survive. Tony Samphier reports.

Teachers in Tuzla are fighting their own war. Under the constant threat of shelling from chetnik (Bosnian Serb nationalist forces) artillery, with no pay and few resources, they soldier on. Teaching under the pressures of war is a daily battle of fear.

"Shells can land at any time and so we are just thankful to see the same faces turn up for school each day," said secondary school teacher Mevlida Altumbabic.

Though Tuzla is not an enclave like Sarajevo, it is a so-called UN Safe Area. Situated to the north-east of the free territories in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the town is still close to the frontline.

Artillery fire from the surrounding hills has been largely indiscriminate. Shrapnel damage scars the school now being patched up for the start of the school year.

But the whole town is emotionally scarred by the event which brought the 19945 school year to a tragic close a month earlier than planned.

At 8.54pm on May 25, school and college students were partying at a town centre cafe, trying to forget about the war which raged around them. A minute later, 65 young civilians were blown to pieces by just one shell-burst.

"We lost two students in the May massacre," said Elmir Mujkanovic, headteacher at the Electrical Engineering secondary school. "We will never forget, but we must get on with the job of teaching."

Secondary education is heavily vocational in Tuzla, geared towards the employment needs of the town. Of the 14 secondary schools, only the "grammar" school has a broad-based curriculum. According to Ms Altumbabic, this has not significantly changed since pre-independence days.

Mr Mujkanovic's school is more fortunate than most. It is backed by the Norwegian Refugee Council because the September intake will include a high proportion of refugees from areas under chetnik control.

In return, the NRC uses a section of the school to run social programmes for women and children housed in a nearby refugee collective centre. Tuzla is host to the 35,000 people who fled from Srebrenica in July. Integrating these new refugees will strain the already frail education system.

Many refugee children lost one or both parents in Srebrenica. Many more witnessed unspeakable atrocities. Teachers will have their work cut out coping with children who need special care.

Though the Electrical Engineering School interior is freshly painted and new desks and chairs fill the classrooms, teaching equipment is conspicuous by its absence. The only exception is Mr Mujkanovic's most prized acquisition - six new computers. With more than 1,000 students, chalk and blackboard teaching will be a poor substitute for more practical learning over the coming year.

The Brcanska Malta primary school is at the other end of the scale. It has a computer studies room, but no computers. The only thing to distinguish it from any other classroom is a picture of a computer clipped from a magazine.

Stevic Murveta is the school's biology teacher. She also heads up the primary school section of the teaching trade union in Tuzla.

"Before the war, schools were well equipped and virtually every classroom had a television," she said. "Today things have worn out and we have very little. "

Ms Murveta's biology laboratory bears this out. She has one microscope, which is ancient and broken. In recent years, the school has been used to house both refugees and military personnel. As a result, the classrooms are wrecked. In the playground a shell has left a metre-wide crater. The school is hoping for help from the British Overseas Development Administration, but on offer is only Pounds 1,500 to fund Pounds 15,000 worth of work.

Throughout the conflict, teachers in Tuzla have faced a tough examination of their will to survive. In the first year, they were called up for military service.

From 1993 to March 1994, Tuzla was isolated by a blockade making food scarce. Electricity, water and telecommunications were cut off, and public transport at a standstill "In the time of the blockade, we always lived between life and death, but we still made it to school to teach," Ms Murveta said. "Many teachers walked for 10 miles or more to get to work. We now have public transport, but no money, so many teachers still travel to school on foot. "

Though supply lines are now open from Croatia and food is in the shops, most goods are too expensive for public sector workers. Ms Murveta was forced to sell the family car to pay for day-to-day expenses such as food and clothes.

Teachers live on hand-outs from humanitarian aid organisations. Most grow vegetables and some are lucky enough to receive money from family or friends abroad.

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