How Children Learned Love In the Middle of Bosnia's War

EVERYDAY HERO

NATO troops marching into Bosnia to end a war have been given a hero's welcome. But among Bosnians themselves, many are being recognized as quiet heroes of peace.

One everyday champion is Majda Vejzovic, a woman who early in the war risked her life to set up a kindergarten in Mostar - not only to teach children, but also to calm and to comfort them.

This southwestern Bosnian city bore the brunt of clashes between Croats and Muslims early in the war, before they joined forces against the Serbs. In nine months of fighting from 1993 to 1994, UN officials estimate, some 100,000 shells detonated in East Mostar, and more than 5,000 people were killed.

Majda set up her first kindergarten along Mostar's shell-holed front line, even as her husband and son languished in a concentration camp. Holes were broken through walls of buildings so children could race to kindergarten without stepping onto the streets, where Croat snipers were on constant vigil.

Her lovingkindness to children is reflected in the artwork on the walls of the Jasmin Kindergarten and in the songs the children have sung to overcome the noise of the shelling.

Outside Majda's office, graffiti splash across the shrapnel-scarred wall. Beside a spray-painted peace sign are the words Mi Volimo Djecu. Translated, it means: "I love you, children."

Majda waged a constant battle against the collective despair among the children.

She describes how one child had seen her mother killed in front of her and did not open up to talk for more than one year.

Another toddler - barely 2 - had drawn a picture of his dead father in a coffin. One child would only color with black crayons.

Toys for girls and boys

Majda often left the protection of the concrete-encased basement to find toys in destroyed houses. She washed them for the children, and darted from basement to basement with the booty in a large sack, bringing joy to the children.

"I would stay with them one or two hours, just to occupy their minds," Majda says. "They were afraid of each sound, and very hungry. The hardest thing was the children's eyes: looking at me for answers that I couldn't give them.

"We talked to them about love," she says. "Considering all the things that happened here, we didn't want them to lose the feeling of love."

Majda's gift for teaching comes from her mother, who once told her that "a man who is not able to forgive is not a man."

That conviction has been tested by the war, even as the first Croat forces began to shell Muslim areas and to force people from their homes. During these chaotic days, armed Croats took away her husband and elder son, Zanin, both Muslim soldiers.

'I knew only one prayer'

The Croat soldiers wanted to take away her younger son, Nedzad. Fearing for Nedzad's life, she began to pray.

"I knew only one prayer, and prayed to God that they would not take him," she says. Just then a Mercedes full of drugs and liquor drove up, distracting the Croat soldier; Majda pushed Nedzad away to safety.

"I began to feel a survival feeling," she says, when she started her new life on the Muslim side of the front lines in Mostar.

"I wanted to stay alive no matter what. The main reason was to teach children to live with common sense."

To use her training as a teacher and to fill a community need - there had been no schools of any kind open for months - she started the school.

"Even though they were hungry, desperate, and frightened, people wanted their children to begin school," Majda says.

Despite her good efforts, she remained quite anxious. "I felt really terrible at this time. I was singing with the kids in the basement and did not even know if my son or husband were alive."

Finally there was a ray of hope. Her husband was released in a prisoner exchange after several months, and Zanin also came home after nine months.

The forgiveness taught by her mother still abides within Majda. Despite the war's agony and trauma, she knows what it has wrought on the children.

Five kindergartens now

From such small beginnings, Majda is now the director of all five kindergartens in East Mostar, employing 20 teachers and educating 900 little pupils who adore her.

And the dank basement, where her wartime work was supported by the United Nations Children's Fund, has now been left behind for a series of new kindergartens, some temporarily housed in shell-damaged coffee bars.

But the children with whom Majda endured the war are always near her thoughts.

"You can't blame the children," she says, "because it is we who form them."

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