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School food is never a joke for Sarajevo's youngsters



School food, that butt of jokes the world over, is not only much sought- after in Sarajevo but is vital to many of the city's children, particularly the refugees whose families were forced to flee empty-handed and who survive on humanitarian hand-outs.

That is why the International Red Cross began an effort more than a year ago to provide all Sarajevo children aged 7-14 with a glass of milk and a sandwich every day during term time. It is one of the projects which the Independent Children of War appeal will support.

The sounds and sights of the Malta primary school in new Sarajevo are universal but the jarring notes remind you this is Bosnia: a large Unicef poster with the silhouette of two boys bending over the tail-fin of a rocket embedded in the ground with the warning, "Unexploded bombs. Don't go near and don't touch." And the children bundled up in scarves, gloves and bulky jackets inside the building - there is no heating, despite the bitter winter.

"Good morning," chorus the 30-odd eight-year-olds in Biljana Kostic's second-year class, one of the few English phrases she has taught her pupils. They sing "Frere Jacques", again in English, for us and giggle at the questions. "I like maths and Bosnian language lessons," said Nijaz, a thin, dark boy. "It used to be Serbo-Croat, now it's Bosnian," Ms Kostic explains.

The atmosphere is jolly and the children well behaved, but there is still a hint of anarchy unusual among a group so young, another effect of the years of war and the collapse of authority. "You can see that wildness in them, a kind of aggression," Ms Kostic said.

Arnel, who has placed his sandwich to one side and has no cup for his milk, is a refugee from Foca, a Muslim-majority town in south-eastern Bosnia viciously "cleansed" by Serb troops in 1992. "My house was destroyed. I was not upset. I remember Foca from before the war, my friends," Arnel says. Ms Kostic is worried about him; he cannot read or write well and should be in a lower class, but it is difficult to contact his parents to discuss the issue.

The school administrator, Rabija Softic, emphasises the importance of the daily hand-out. "There is often no milk in Sarajevo, or if there is many people cannot afford it, so these snacks are very important. We really want this project to continue for as long as possible."

It is not only needed on the government side of the line; the project benefits more than 47,000 school-children in 73 schools, 29 of them in Serb-held territory.

The German Red Cross, which administers the programme, distributes flour and milk powder to local bakeries and dairies, which in turn deliver to schools. The cost is 780,000 marks (pounds 356,000) per term, or about pounds 4,700 per school. The project was interrupted last March, when an increase in shelling and sniping forced the government to close schools, but with the hope of peace Malta reopened for the winter term on 15 September.

As break-time begins after a maths lesson, Ismar, who sits next to Arnel, asks if he can sing a song for us. He stands like a small but determined soldier, and sings of the wind rushing above the sea. Most of the children, who were four when the war began, know the seaside only from photographs, distant memories and Ismar's song.