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Tuned into friendship as bombs fell

A radio station provided a lifeline for Sarajevo's children. Harvey McGavin went to its third birthday party. Inside the studio of Radio Zid there's a party going on. The children's radio programme The Colourful Wall is three years old and there's a lot to celebrate.

During the siege of Sarajevo, The Colourful Wall was a lifeline for children when their schools were closed or they couldn't leave their home for fear of snipers.

The daily one-hour show, named after the bright mural which decorates the entrance to the independent station, is a mixture of entertainment and education. And it's hugely popular; more than half of Sarajevo's children listen in.

There are lessons in science, languages, history, geography and computing, interspersed with music, entertainment, news and fashion features. All the ideas and scripts are produced by a team of 20 children, aged from seven to 15, who are selected on the basis of script-writing and reading tests.

"They have to be able to read well and not get nervous," explains Elma, one of the four adult editors who help the children and check their scripts for mistakes.

She doesn't have a lot to do today. The presenters are confident, and the show, which includes highlights from the first three years of transmission, goes like clockwork. There is cake and cola for everyone, and lots of dancing and laughing, especially when a romantic message from Elma to an ex-boyfriend is broadcast. At 21, she is a relative veteran of the show, and worked there in less happy circumstances.

"At the beginning of the war the programme was very important for the children who couldn't get to school. It was an awful time. There were about l0 or 15 of us working on the programme. The bombs were falling all around us and a lot of terrible things happened. At that time education was a much bigger part of the programme. We tried to teach everything that the children would have learned if they could have gone to school."

During the war, the station gathered neighbourhood news to help friends keep in touch when suburbs of Sarajevo were cut off from each other. Tapes of the programme were also distributed by UNICEF to schools and refugee camps around Bosnia.

The drama group, an offshoot of the show, has just produced Sarajevo's first feature-length children's drama - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory- with financial help from pen-pal schools across Europe. In the future, they want to establish links with children in other countries to exchange letters, cassettes and e-mail messages.

In the dark cold days of war, The Colourful Wall was a teacher and friend for thousands of children. In peace, it continues to broadcast its upbeat, optimistic message.

"We try to create some kind of other world where there are no enemies and we could all live in peace," says Elma. "In the programme we never say anything about the war. We try to live as if everything was OK."

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