Mental shrapnel is hardest to remove

12th July 1996 at 01:00
Harvey McGavin, recently returned from Bosnia, files a three-page report on what the future holds for children after the bitter war that shattered their country. If you want to see what war can do, go to Grbavica. Grbavica was the front line in Sarajevo, a grid of leafy streets and blocks of flats from which Serbian snipers picked off their targets.

Under the Dayton agreement signed last December, the Serbs handed Grbavica back to the Bosnians. On their way out, they torched the area, burning belongings on the streets.

It is an eerie place. People live here now, but it will be a long time before life returns to normal. They still have to queue for water, but at least they can walk the streets. Other areas are out of bounds - cordoned off until they can be cleared of mines.

Ida was a pupil at the III Gimnazija Braca Ribar in Grbavica when the fighting began. She was evacuated in a convoy of women and children and held hostage by the Serbs for three days. As a refugee, she finished her education in six different schools. She hasn't seen her old school for four years.

It's changed a lot. The corridors are quiet, scattered with glass and plaster. Downstairs, there are sandbags piled up against an office window and, on the wall, obscene graffiti in bad English. Upstairs, the classrooms are awash with rubbish.

On a map of Yugoslavia, someone has drawn the outline of Bosnia in rough defiant strokes of green marker pen. There's an old class photograph, three rows of smiling children with their teacher at the back. Where are they now? Those two joined the Chetniks, he was shot by a sniper, that girl was raped and killed.

Ida starts sifting through the debris, looking for something from her past. Does it make her sad? "Four years is four years - a lot has happened." She can remember the barricades going up, thinking that the war would only last a few months, but she doesn't really like talking about it.

Ruined buildings can be rebuilt, books can be bought and teachers trained. But no amount of money can wipe out the memory of mortar attacks, compensate for the death of classmates or make up for the trauma of living your teenage years in the midst of war.

More than half of Bosnia's schools were damaged in the fighting. To repair them will cost something like Pounds 100 million. The number of primary and secondary teachers has halved, from around 31,500 in 1991 to 16,000 today. Some have been killed, many have become refugees and others joined the brain drain of professionals who left the country when war began. The ministry of education believes as many as 4,000 teachers are abroad and hopes to persuade some of them to return.

In the meantime, around 8,000 adults who worked as volunteer teachers during the war are to be offered proper training. Teachers have just begun to be paid again and Pounds 20 a month may not be much of an incentive for exiled teachers, but it's better than nothing, which is what those that stayed were earning.

One of the most pressing needs is for books. Centuries-worth of cultural treasures perished in the attack on Sarajevo's library and booksellers plying dog-eared paperbacks are a common sight on the city's streets. In the schools, pre-war literature is often no longer appropriate and ethnic divisions are appearing in the classroom.

Teachers in Croat-majority areas of the federation recently refused to use newly-printed textbooks covering Bosnian history, language and culture. The history books are hurriedly being rewritten in Bosnian, Croat or Serb, but with minor, telltale differences.

An unwelcome but necessary addition to the curriculum has been mine-awareness classes. The Red Cross is about to launch the first co-ordinated school education programme with graphic artwork designed by Sarajevan youngsters. The message: "Mi ne mine" ("We don't like mines"), is simple, and the image, of a maimed limb, is stark.

There are anything between two and six million mines in Bosnia. Sarajevo's Kosevo hospital receives mine casualties every day and clearance is a task that will take a generation to accomplish.

"Most kids have a pretty fair idea of what mines look like," says Paul Davis, mine information officer with the International Red Cross. "The trouble is, kids are smaller, they can get into derelict buildings that might be booby-trapped, and they like to play dangerous games."

"We are training local people to work in schools. The last thing you want to do is explain to kids how mines work, that can give them a false sense of security. We have to make them afraid of mines. This problem is going to be around for 20 or 30 years yet so we have to set up local organisations to last that long."

As well as the long-term rebuilding and repair programmes, Bosnia will also have to redefine the role of education in a post-Communist market economy, a task it was just beginning when war broke out.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today