Peace dividend in the divided city

12th July 1996 at 01:00
Mostar is now uncovering the mixed fortunes of war, writes Harvey McGavin. Mostar is a city of two halves. In Muslim east Mostar, the old town is shot to pieces. Amid the ruins of ancient riverside houses, stallholders sell mortar shells as souvenirs. In Croat west Mostar, the modern, wide avenues are lined with trees and hotels. In between, the old front line is a no-man's-land of charred trees and ruined streets.

Peace in former Yugoslavia is a fragile thing and in Mostar it seems especially uneasy. But it has brought dividends. There's a new bridge linking the two sides (if you're a Muslim you cross at your peril), a futuristic railway station (but still no trains) and the town's schools have been rebuilt. The Osnovna Skola in Vrapcici, just outside Mostar, was destroyed. Now it's just about the only building in the village in one piece.

The school is freshly painted, light and airy. The only signs of war are a poster warning of mines on the front door, a couple of drawings, and a plaque commemorating its reconstruction, with European Union money, and its reopening in October 1995. The children seem happy, but they have been counselled by therapists and the most traumatised will receive psycho-social help.

"I don't know how we managed during the war," recalls the school's director, Mustafic Mirsada. "We were 500 metres from the front line and there was shelling and bullets all the time.

"We worked in the cellar. It was cold and we had no heating. There was a time when we just had candles for light. But I didn't think for a second to leave. It was love for the children and wanting to give them knowledge that made me stay. Even though there was war, education was still important."

When the shelling became too intense, the children would gather at a shop in the village to have their lessons.

"Every day was like a miracle. None of the teachers was hurt. One of our children died but it happened at her home, a shell hit the house. A lot of children lost parents."

Today they are being taught by Bennett Hogg, a British musician and academic who now runs a series of workshops for children in 12 Mostar schools sponsored by aid agency War Child. The classes are informal and fun, teaching the rudiments of music and rhythm through local songs and dancing. This kind of enjoyment and self-expression is an essential part of the recovery process for children.

For the first time in years, the school's director is optimistic about the future. "Things are much better now," she says. "We don't talk about the war - everybody is sick of it and the children don't want to be reminded of it. Nostalgia is sometimes worse than hunger."

Donja Mala elementary school in Mostar's old town was built in 1862. Until April 4, 1992 it had 12 classrooms and 780 pupils. "Then the Serb army started shelling from up there," says the school's director, Jakirovic Rasim, pointing to a scrub-covered hill on the other side of the River Neretva. "130 grenades fell on this school." One for every year of the school's history. A noticeboard full of photographs records the damage.

The school playground became a makeshift graveyard when the real graveyard became inaccessible. Three pupils were shot and wounded by snipers. More than 60 children lost a parent in the war.

When the Croat offensive began in 1993, Jakirovic Rasim was forced, along with thousands of other Muslims, out of west Mostar and ended up in a concentration camp. Today, he cannot make the 10-minute walk across the front line to his former home.

When he talks about the war, his voice rises and he slams the table. But he says he is determined that the next generation should learn tolerance and forgiveness.

"Religion isn't a factor in our school. We learn about the (Serb) orthodox church, the Catholic church and Islam equally. Even our Bosnian language teacher is a Croat. Knowledge is our only weapon against aggression."

After 18 months of impromptu classes in basements and safe houses, the school eventually reopened in March this year.

"Conditions now are pretty good. We are still missing a few teachers but we hope they will come back." In his smart office there are televisions and videos and a cupboard piled high with colourful satchels for the new intake.

On the desk is a neatly-folded piece of paper with a list of children's names, a tick by each one, and a pile of l00 dinar (Pounds 2.30) notes. Every child has contributed to a collection for the Red Cross.

"We want to help people who are now in worse situations than we are," he says. "This was a war against civilians. The school was taken away from the children but now it has been given back. We have to thank the world for rebuilding our school."

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