The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

Reminders of war amid routine of the classroom

Thursday, March 27, 1997, 0:00
Section: Bosnia,Journalism

The Potomac NewsThis story originally appeared in The Potomac News.

SIMIN HAN, BOSNIA — The convoy of Humvees rolled into the schoolyard in a cloud of dust.

A horde of children, between the ages of 4 and 10, swarmed the vehicles, offering clumsy high-fives to the GIs, calling out for “lunch box” — prepackaged Army rations known as Meals Ready to Eat.

The soldiers tumbled out of their cars, grinning at one another and the children. Those giving out candy were almost at risk for their lives, with children tugging at their sleeves, shouting out mysterious requests in Serbo-Croatian and waving their hands frantically at their benefactors.

On the surface, the students at the school in the village of Simin Han, just east of Tuzla, seemed like any other children. They pushed and laughed and sang silly songs to the visitors.

They wear “Aladdin” T-shirts and “Lion King” jeans. Teachers had to herd the students, who were easily distracted by the soldiers in their Kevlar vests and helmets, from class to class.

A dozen little girls played jump rope with found string tied into longer strands as older boys lounged on the fences, watching the soldiers’ arrival with an elaborate show of nonchalance.

But across the driveway from the school was an equally large building, a shelter for families whose husbands and fathers were dead or missing. Other students in the school have moved with their families into other Muslims’ houses, where most of them now live one family to a room.

The Psychological Operations unit from Eagle Base in Tuzla was here for a number of reasons: to discuss the school’s facilities and safety, to buy shelter-made crafts for resale at the Eagle Base Post Exchange and to distribute food and books as aid.

Taking advantage of the situation was Sgt. Roy Caldwell, of the history unit, who brought a video camera along to record answers to questions posed by a fourth-grade class in Helena, Mont., where his son goes to school.

Although the Bosnian school system numbers the academic levels differently, he found a class of comparably aged students and an amenable teacher.

“Hi,” Caldwell said, standing at the front of the room. The classroom smelled of chalk dust and was filled with the sounds of students and soldiers in the driveway, outside its windows. Students sat side-by-side at two-person desks. “First, I want to say thanks for letting us to come to your class. What I want is to ask some questions asked by a fourth-grade class in America.”

As translated by Vildonna Halilovic, one of the Army’s Bosnian civilian employees, the idea was met with enthusiasm. The children leapt out of their chairs, arms raised to tell that they play soccer, volleyball and basketball when asked what games they enjoy.

Caldwell put his hand to his head, thinking about which question to ask next.

“Oh, this is a kid question: How many kids have TV?”

About three-quarters of the class raised their hands.

“How many have phones?”

Only two of the 30 students raised their hands. Phone lines were one of the early targets during the civil war, and even today communication throughout the Tennessee-sized nation can be hit or miss.

Caldwell consulted his crib sheet and grinned.

“What happens when you misbehave in class?”

Halilovic listened a moment to the replies, then gestured at the teacher standing next to her.

“She is yelling at them a little bit,” Halilovic explained. For more severe infractions, students get demerits in the teacher’s book.

For the most part, the Bosnian children’s questions were similar to the Americans’: Do American kids play soccer? Do they have to learn math? Do American children have their own rooms?

But as familiar as the classroom scene was, there were telling differences: The students’ history books include graphic depictions of the Bosnian civil war, including photos of concentration camp prisoners and dead bodies.

One of the students, a blond girl of 11, sat at a desk by herself on the left side of the classroom, blowing bubbles with her gum and listening to the proceedings. One of the better students in the class, she eagerly answered questions, her hand waving frantically for attention. But she’s also one of the students most touched by the carnage that swept through the former Yugoslavia five years ago.

Smaida is one of three students in the class who also live in the shelter. She, her mother and her two sisters, ages 3 and 14, have lived there for a year. Two years ago they fled the worst civilian massacre since World War II. Nearly 8,000 people are missing in the wake of the ethnic cleansing that swept the Muslim community of Srebrenica.

When she mentioned the flight from Srebrenica after class, Smaida’s face went pale, her light green eyes began to water.

“She says it was really bad when she saw all those people wounded,” Halilovic translated.

Life in the shelter is “nice,” she said, but “it was better there” in Srebrenica, before the killings began.

The past overshadows her hopes for the future. She doesn’t have ambitions like becoming a doctor, a teacher, a journalist. All she wants for the future, Halilovic translates is “she would like for her father to come home. And she hopes he will come back.”

Her father, Smajo, whom she was named after, has been missing for three years and is presumed dead.

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