City under siege feels betrayed by Europe: Despite Sarajevans' misgivings about the West, English lessons provide a dream of escape, writes Emma Daly

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The Independent Online
THE ENGLISH class has reached lesson 20: Vera is visiting John and Mary in London, and one by one the Bosnian students explain their itinerary. 'The train is arriving at Victoria Station, at Platform Eight,' says Amra. 'They nearly missed the train because a traffic jam made the taxi so slow,' adds Nina. 'They did not take the Underground because it is so crowded,' explains Bjup.

Their teacher, Branca Metkos, writes the words 'rush hour' on her makeshift black board - the cheap wooden surface of a cupboard door. Her eight students, mostly young, all concentrating hard, write their exercises in old diaries or address books.

'Vera is interested in the English way of life,' continues Aida. The same could be said for most of the class - they are interested in any way of life outside Sarajevo, and are paying 100 German marks (pounds 40) apiece for an intensive Interlingua course. That is expensive in a place where surgeons make DM4 a month, but cheap if it means a ticket out of a city broken by 22 months of bloody siege.

Nina, a 16-year-old, is spending the school holidays improving her schoolgirl English. 'I want to go abroad,' she said. 'I don't know where, anywhere.' Before the war she visited Italy and Istanbul; now she wants to live 'some place in America'. Bjup, a young policeman dressed in fatigues, does not care where he goes. 'I just want to get a ticket out with Unprofor (the UN Protection Force),' he said, drawing laughter from his classmates. They know that the freedom to leave, or to stay, will not come for some time. Adnan, at 32 the oldest pupil, added: 'We see our future to the West, not to the East.'

The ceasefire in Sarajevo has improved life, said Ms Metkos. 'We are relaxed now; we have had so much suffering,' she explained. The class nodded in agreement, muttering the Bosnian word that needs no translation: snaijper. Ms Metkos describes the facts of life.

'There are films on television we can follow in English, but there's no electricity. I'm a Muslim by tradition but my husband is a Croat,' she continues, before Edin butts in: 'But he's a Muslim now.' Still, there is a recognition that not all Serbs are bad - just the nationalist Chetniks, peasants in the eyes of Sarajevans, who have sought to destroy a civilisation.

After class, Almir, 17, lingered outside, enjoying the unfamiliar calm. He wants to be a computer engineer, but fears he might yet have to go and fight, perhaps elsewhere in Bosnia. His English is good enough to tell a joke: 'Heavenly father bless us, And keep us all alive. There are eight of us for dinner, And there's only enough for five.' Here, it's all too true.

Over drinks at a cafe in town (DM47 for four coffees and two Cokes) Adnan, a dark, handsome man, took out a picture of his five-year-old son, a chubby boy with his father's sad eyes. He explained he has not seen the boy, nor his wife, for two years. They are refugees in Zagreb. Adnan was an engineer in the Yugoslav Air Force and he moved the family to Sarajevo just before the war. But his apartment in Grbavica, a Serb-held suburb, is now on the front line and he can only go there at night, to fight.

'This town was very rich, with a lot of cinema, theatre, and football,' he said. 'The people here are beautiful - Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews - but a lot have left Sarajevo and most of them will never come back.'

Like everyone here, Adnan feels betrayed by the West but expresses no rancour, just incomprehension. 'I used to feel European. I don't know what Europe feels but now I don't feel European, I just can't understand them. . . . they give us food, but we want to live in peace, a just peace . . . all this destruction.' His voice trailed off and I felt a wave of shame.

Edin Madzic the director of Interlingua, said: 'I had a ticket, to Holland, during the Slovene war, but I changed my mind. When the war started in Croatia I was going to go to Vienna but again I changed my mind. Something inside is not letting me go,' and he put his hand on his heart.

'I always ask myself why? Why did they do it?' asked Adnan. 'And I don't think I have the right answer. My mind cannot explain it.'

'I know the right answer,' said Kemal Delalic bitterly. 'Europe and the US think the Muslims of Bosnia and Yugoslavia are like in Iraq. I like to work, so does he. But the Serbs just like uniforms - police, army, fireman. I have a degree but I work as a taxi-driver because I get more money.

'I have known about politics in England since I was a child. Every schoolchild learnt about England, the number of people, towns, industry, the arts. But children in England did not learn anything about Yugoslavia.'