Death disrupts spring in Bosnian classroom: For children accustomed to war, school is the only fun they have, Marcus Tanner reports from Sarajevo

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The Independent Online
THE classroom walls are already decked with children's pictures and a hush descends as 30 small heads bend over a fresh set of drawings.

This is the art class in a central Sarajevo school and the rumble and crackle of mortar bombs and sniper fire in the distance no longer has the power to disturb anyone.

The theme of the lesson is Sarajevo in springtime. But 12-year-old Lela has drawn a massacre. On her sheet of A4 paper stick men lie scattered on their backs in the street, red balloons of blood gushing from their insides on to the pavement. Cars in the background are shot full of black holes. A zig-zag across the window looks like a smashed windscreen. the roof is literally flying off one house, a twist of orange flame spiralling upwards. A pair of spectacles lies on the street next to man with closed eyes who looks very dead.

Lela lives in Vase Miskina Street in the middle of Sarajevo's old town, where a mortar bomb explosion last year killed dozens of civilians as they queued for bread. 'I was in the corridor at home when the bomb landed,' she recalls in an adult and emotionless voice, a wax crayon in her hand. 'I ran into the street and saw a lot of people lying bleeding and dead.'

'Children flee from the horror of war but they always remember,' said the art teacher, Nada Sijelski. 'I try to make them concentrate on Sarajevo in the spring, but this is still spring in wartime.'

Lela is lucky in that she at least has a school to go to. In the heavily bombed suburbs few schools operate. The children roam wild among the rubble of bombed and burnt-out tower blocks, dodging sniper bullets fired from the Serb-held hills above the city as if it was a game.

At Kosevo hospital, children who dawdled too long within the snipers' sights are among those who lie glassy- eyed in the children's ward, some paralysed for life or missing limbs. The Bosnian Health Ministry estimates that 1,304 children in Sarajevo have been killed as a direct result of war, by shelling, sniper fire or by cold or starvation.

In the city centre, in the Austrian quarter and the older Turkish-era Bas-carsija, fewer buildings have been destroyed totally, and most children attend an educational institution, albeit in pitiful conditions.

Lela's school, Mugdim Kadric, named after a Bosnian fighter killed early in the war, functions in four medium-sized rooms. Space is hard to come by in central Sarajevo, overflowing with refugees.

To fit them in, the 250 children are broken up into 16 shifts spread over the day from 8am until 4.30pm. The 30 teachers in the school all work voluntarily. Many are refugees themselves. The Bosnian Education Ministry has no money for pens or books, let alone teachers' salaries. All the penniless Bosnian state provides is a syllabus, exams and lots of encouragement.

'When we opened last October the aim was to cater for children of dead, wounded or missing parents,' said Jusuf Cikic, the headmaster. 'The worst time we had was last November, when the bombing was so bad we had to close for three weeks.'

Mugdim Kadric offers ragged text books, dank classrooms and lessons - if the teachers are not stopped from reaching the school by heavy bombardment. One problem familiar to most Western schools which is unknown to Mugdim Kadric is truancy or misbehaviour. 'For 90 per cent of the children, school is the only opportunity in the day when they get out of the house and meet other children,' Mr Cikic added. 'My own daughter is here and she says if I ever close the school she will go completely crazy.'

A tour of the classrooms bears out Mr Cikic's boast. 'School is the only fun we have although we do not have enough pens or books,' said Ramia, aged 15. 'At home all I do is read books or watch the television.'

In one classroom a show of hands revealed more than half the pupils were refugees from Serb-held suburbs or from other towns in Bosnia. For the children the few hours spent learning maths, literature and science were a welcome break in bleak lives spent in underground shelters or solving everyday problems of survival.

Fifteen-year-old Samra looked like any European teenager, dressed in blue jeans, red plastic jacket, auburn hair tied back with a tortoise-shell comb. Until the war erupted a year ago she lived like any middle-class girl her age in the suburb of Ilidza. Today she and her family are refugees. The family home is behind Serb lines and burnt to the ground. The whole family now shares a tiny flat with her grandmother in the city centre. Her father is at the front line.

Apart from school, Samra's day focuses on household chores, which involve risking her life. 'When school is over I have to think about water. Our supply is cut and the pump is 40 minutes' walk away. I have to drag back 20 litres and sometimes I get caught in crossfire and have to hide.'

Lela said: 'The biggest fun for me at home is when the electricity comes on, which isn't often. Then at least I can listen to the radio.'

(Photograph omitted)

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