Bosnia's Future May Hinge On Chalk, Books, Tolerance

This year's graduating class at Sarajevo's Second Gymnazija has been through a lot. The siege of their city started during middle school and ended sophomore year.

In the spring they'll be ready to go out into the world. They face a future in a country that is still both divided and devastated.

Like most everything in Bosnia, schools and universities suffered terribly in the recent war. They were shelled, burned, looted, and targeted by snipers. Many schools in the Bosnian Serb republic - largely spared from the fighting - are in a state of pitiful disrepair due to economic dislocation and government neglect.

Now Bosnians of all ethnicities are struggling not only to rebuild their children's schools, but also to reinvent them. Under difficult circumstances, educators are working to revamp and modernize the curriculum, teaching methods, and textbooks to prepare their students for life in the new Bosnia.

"The situation here is not so bright," says Damir Mezet, who would like to study architecture abroad after graduation. "But I would come back here after my studies are finished because I love our country and I want to help build its future."

Most schools and universities operated in some form throughout Bosnia's 1992 to 1996 war. Sarajevo's Second Gymnazija was damaged by the fighting and nearly gutted by desperate refugees, who burned all the furniture, library books, and floorboards for heat.

But school director Meliha Alic has managed to put it back in order with help from foreign and domestic donors. Classrooms are heated and furnished, and the teaching staff gets paid on time. Ms. Alic says she still has to work full time raising donations just to meet payroll and operating expenses. "Further rebuilding will just have to wait," she says.

Meanwhile her students - widely regarded as some of the country's best-trained - look with trepidation at the state of the university system, where a lack of donor support has left most buildings derelict.

"I worry because the situation at the University of Sarajevo is so bad," says Ema Kapetanovic, who wants to study philosophy. "We won't have the learning opportunities that our parents had because many professors have left. But emigrating abroad is no solution for our country."

University of Sarajevo rector Nedzad Mulabegovic agrees. "If we're going to stop the brain drain and rebuild a democracy in this country, the universities need to get back on their feet ... This is the future of our country we're talking about."

These students study under difficult conditions - particularly in war-damaged Sarajevo and East Mostar, where students and faculty purged from the Croat-controlled west of the city have founded a new university in an abandoned army barracks.

Foreign aid has so far concentrated on primary and secondary education, but an acute shortage of qualified teachers has prompted investments in teacher training programs.

"Only by changing the mentality of the teacher can we hope to have democratic thought and civic tolerance develop here," says Ilona Szemzo of the World Bank, which recently released $11 million in credits to rebuild secondary schools.

"In this part of the world the teacher stands in front of the class and tells them what to memorize," she says. "We want to ... have students and teachers express themselves as individuals."

It's an approach that can ruffle feathers. When philosophy teacher Sanja Vlaisavjevic introduced formal debate to her logic classes at the Second Gymnazija her students were delighted. She includes controversial topics like "Is there a God?" (Bosnia is undergoing a Muslim religious revival) and "If a soldier kills someone, is it murder?"

"The students caught on immediately, understanding that this is an exercise in logic and reasoning," she says. "But my fellow teachers don't understand this - they're outraged because they ... think I'm teaching them dangerous ideas."

Other schools must contend with this summer's dramatic influx of 100,000 returning refugees who have lived in Germany for the past four years.

And many students need help coping with traumatic experiences. When Gregoire de Sachy of the French charity Solidarites asked a group of primary school students to write a short biography, he received a pile of "many, many terrible stories." He says, "Some [students] do very well, others need extra help."

"There's plenty of work to be done," says Nedzad Hrelja, the Soros Foundation's school program director. "Other East European countries are brushing up their education systems. Here, we're trying to simultaneously install windows, radiators, and multimedia computers, counsel children, and reform the curriculum. Bosnia needs all the help it can get."

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