Playing for their lives

Spectrum, Scotland on Sunday
Sun 24 Feb 2002

Scotland on Sunday

By Louise Rimmer

IT is eight hours by train from the affluent port of Trieste to the drab streets of Brcko, Bosnia. The pasta and fine coffee of Italy may only be 400km away, but it is a long, long way from la dolce vita. Arriving in Brcko is something of an anti-climax - the post office is a typically off-white Communist structure, the paved square boasts a few stalls selling pirate CDs, but there are no postcard-friendly monuments or statues. Ugly, small-town eastern Europe. Only the bullet holes and shellmarks hint at the tragedy that befell this - and so many other - innocuous Balkan towns.

Leaving the tiny centre and heading out to the suburbs, you see mid-rise dirty apartments, almost every one bearing the scars of mortars. The relatively smooth roads quickly give way to more bumpy terrain and apartments turn into houses. There is building and re-building going on everywhere. Most of the occupiers are not the original owners. The Bosnian authorities now face the daunting task of rehousing the Muslims who fled the first wave of ethnic cleansing, whose empty homes were then occupied by displaced Serbs.

It is a sad carousel of the dispossessed, and stories of widows being rehoused in the same street as their husband's killers are commonplace.

AS THE media gradually lost interest in blood-stained Bosnia-Herzegovina, a drab, featureless town on the north-eastern plains remained infamous. Brcko (pronounced ‘Burrrchko') remained the last territorial issue left unresolved in 1995's Dayton Peace Agreement. A vital link to Serb-held land in the east and west and an important rail and road link to the Muslims (or Bosniaks, as they prefer to be known) and Croats, it was hotly contested by all three sides. It was finally decreed a self-governing neutral zone in March 2000, a controversial decision for the Serbs, who saw themselves surrendering land they had fought so bloodily for, and the end of hope for an independent state.

Although the new administration includes representatives from both the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-Croat Federation, tensions still run high. There is a heavy presence of UN tanks and soldiers in the town following ugly demonstrations in October 2000 over Muslims and Serbs sharing school facilities. Now Serb children go to school in the morning and Muslims are educated in the afternoon, although multi-ethnic schooling is slowly being introduced. Similarly, Serbs are taught in the Cyrillic version of Serbo-Croat, whereas Muslims learn the Latin alphabet; needless to say, history lessons vary according to who teaches and who learns.

This reluctant multi-ethnic backwater is also home to a small Scottish charity. Founded by Ellie Maxwell at the age of 21, whilst studying at Edinburgh University, Firefly Youth Project promotes reconciliation between young people of all ethnic backgrounds in Brcko, encouraging tolerance and understanding. Housed in three different centres, each venue offers a range of activities from IT to English language, animation classes to poetry nights, encouraging creative and professional development. Wave a video camera or new football strip in front of children and it's funny how they are suddenly prepared to forget their prejudices and begin to mix - albeit gradually. The projects are currently run by Scottish youth workers and locals but the aim is to hand over Firefly to a team based permanently in the region.

But how do you encourage children whose families were at war to play together? Children's lives should be lived by the laws of catch and kiss, not those of demarcation lines and peace accords. At the Firefly Halloween party, it is a relief to see the children charged with excitement as the Scottish staff introduce them to dooking for apples.

The party is held at the suburban Firefly centre, Dizdarusa, one of Brcko's few oases of multi-ethnicity. There's something unbearably poignant about seeing the little heads peeking over their fancy dress, all anonymous underneath the manic grins and green pallor. It highlights the reality that with or without masks, it is impossible to tell who is Muslim, who is Croat and who is Serb anyway. When it comes to who stays and who goes, only your name and your accent are giveaways.

Older Firefly members share more cultural activities, the highlight of which is Miroslav's poetry night. Miroslav, a strapping charismatic lad, looks older than his 28 years. His self-taught English is punctuated with bronchitic chuckles, but he has an earnestness which allows him to make comments such as "Theatre transcends politics" without being mocked. I've no idea what he is saying as he addresses the expectant crowd with open notebooks, but he commands an almost mystical authority.

It is funny how hearing another language's poetry wash over you can be beautiful. One girl reads an epic poem to a melancholic guitar accompaniment. When the applause dies down, the heavily made-up girl next to me identifies some of the poem's themes. "It was about love... about life being like a river," she nods wisely. All this adolescent wisdom is so familiar, yet these young poets grew up dodging snipers and were taught in different classrooms.

A pot-holed road through a dry plain brings you to Firefly's third centre in Brodusa. Formerly known as the Zone of Separation, Brodusa now goes by the name of the Zone of Return, but is a far cry from the tarmac roads and plotted lands of the town centre. Muslim tombstones are jammed tightly together and children push each other around in wheelbarrows on the dusty tracks. The shiny new minaret glimmering on the horizon (where there were once dozens) is a potent symbol of hope, but there is a prevailing air of disorder. Admir, the 33-year-old Muslim who teaches English and IT here, doesn't like journalists with snoopy questions.

He speaks in a forced high voice with false politeness. When asked about what he remembers of Brcko at the beginning of the war he frowns and begins monotone: "When they started pushing us out of our homes.."

Does he mean the Serbs? "That is not politically correct. You journalists just cannot come here and stir all this up again. We have got to live together." He returns to his unnerving calm. "There were fights, grenades, killings. You had two choices: run away or stay."

Admir spent five years as a refugee in Croatia, in refugee camps and eventually with his family. On his return, he barely recognised his old town. "It was overgrown, empty, ruined. All mosques were destroyed. It was like the moon."

This sad buffer zone is also home to most of Brcko's Roma community. The journalists who reported three warring ethnicities from Sarajevo's Holiday Inn were overlooking generations of Romas, who survived by begging on the fringe of Yugoslav society. Firefly have been instrumental in working towards their inclusion in post-war Bosnia by offering informal educational programmes for children, with the added attraction of a financial bonus for their parents.

Elisa, a stunning 20-year-old, is one of the few members of the Roma community who attends school. She is now helping Admir with the Roma education project and feels she wants to stay in Brcko, where she says there are "good life conditions". "We need to get jobs," she says. "We need some kind of a centre, to establish a community." She makes no apologies for her community, insisting they have not been excluded but have not been interested in being included. As Admir says, the Romas have lived like this for centuries - "Not even Tito could force them to go to school," he laughs. "If the parents didn't go to school, they don't see why their children should."

The Romas were pushed out of Brcko, alongside the Muslims, by the Serbian army at the beginning of the war. Is it politically correct to ask how they were forced out? But Admir is not allowed to answer; Jasmin has jumped to his feet. "They put a gun to your head and tell you to get out! How do you think?' he yells. "It's a stupid f***ing question."

It is too soon to talk about the war, but it is also impossible to avoid. Perhaps the only way you can survive alongside neighbours who once fought you is by knowing that they're finding it just as hard.

BACK IN the town centre HQ there is a group of 11-year-old-Serb girls practising a dance sequence to Geri Halliwell's 'It's Raining Men'. The walls are adorned with photographs from holiday camps, its corners crammed with sports equipment and musical instruments.

"We come here because we want to," they say. "Not like school". The local schools have few resources when it comes to expressive arts. A mixed older group is rehearsing for a play. There is the usual dearth of boys willing to engage in the emotional demands of drama, but the Firefly theatre group has more pressing preoccupations. "Of course we tackle themes of conflict in theatre," says Miroslav. "Most plays are about tension between characters. You don't have to specify who's Croat, Serb and Muslim. You have to be conscious to present plays in different dialects and not just use Serbian language exclusively. We used to rehearse in a church. But they wanted to see the rehearsals, though, to check there was no anti-Serb sentiments, even though I am Serb."

As manager of the Firefly project, English teacher Gordana has the air of the perpetually worried. Her ballerina gait and narrow glasses give her an opposing fragility and austerity; yet half an hour's conversation reveals a determination not to succumb to the propaganda of any ethnic group.

Born and brought up in Brcko, Gordana's family were Serb, but not religious. "Even today, I don't know the names of the saints or of the different days we should celebrate," she says. She left to study in Sarajevo, where she was trapped for four years under the bloody siege. "I spoke to my family twice during that time, through Red Cross messages. Ironically it was my Muslim rather than my Serb friends who helped me out during that time."

Gordana escaped illegally from the capital shortly after the Dayton Agreement. When she finally returned to Brcko, she found that her father had been killed only a month before. "Brcko was destroyed. All the shops were empty, everything was gone. I was in total shock. My sister Kristina was obviously very deeply traumatised by my father's death. We still are. She has kidney stones at the age of 20, and although I slept right through the shelling of Sarajevo, I never sleep more than two hours a night now."

How Gordana and Kristina have rebuilt their lives has been a direct result of Firefly. Kristina attended English classes from the organisation's beginning and is now an emblem of pride for them. She recently left Brcko to study modern languages at the University of Banja Luka and returns at weekends to teach Spanish. Gordana joined the Firefly staff at a particularly contentious time. "There were demonstrations about the decision to create a multi-ethnic Brcko District. People attacked the OHR (Office of High Representative) and the internationals left. The bombing of Serbia also started at that time. It was very, very difficult for anyone who wanted to work in reconciliation."

One of the first projects Gordana helped to co-ordinate was the brave and ambitious multi-ethnic festival of 1999, Brckfest. The sight of Muslim jugglers being cheered on by Serb audiences was truly moving. "It was a crazy idea," laughs Gordana. "We had a lot of difficulty getting permission, but we got there in the end."

"We do not have success all the time, though," she adds cautiously. "If a child stops coming, it's usually because their parents don't want them to mix. It's not necessarily because they hate the other group, it's more that they're worried about what other people - friends, relations - will say. There's a lot of fear."

Gordana points to the last year's shared-school demonstrations as an example. "Public events affect things and that makes our job difficult. But you can't think that it has destroyed all of Firefly's work - maybe it is just a step back."

The steps towards tolerance and understanding between the communities will be slow and arduous. Gordana's English class, all clamouring competitively for her attention, is 100% Serb. Although English lessons are available in the Muslim suburbs, few parents would risk their children being attacked by nationalists by allowing them to travel into Brcko centre to be taught in a mixed group. Still, the Serb children also have unique needs. There is only one other international organisation working with young people in Brcko, partly because it is often seen as necessary to work only with those seen as victims of the conflict. Serbs are usually seen as the 'aggressors' and those who played no part in the atrocities can feel burdened with collective guilt - an identity crisis which can only fuel further bitterness and conflict.

When they talk of the future, Admir, Miroslav, Gordana and Ellie are all agreed. "Young people don't see any future here. There are no jobs, no industry. Western Europe and the United States are more desirable. "All governments here do nothing to keep the youth in," says Admir. "Our mission is to help young people to be empowered. This war finished six years ago. Too much time has gone and not enough has been done."

But it cannot be denied that in a small but significant way, Firefly is helping to light up the road to Bosnia's future.

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