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Bosnia: The Children of War
How has war affected a generation too young to remember it?

Bosnian boys on a hill overlooking the city of Sarajevo.
(Photo: Ziyah Gafic/Exclusive by Getty Images)
An excerpt from Junior Scholastic, May 12, 2008

Damir Medunjanin (MAD-oon-YAHNin), 12, lives with his mother and sister in Sarajevo (SAHrah-YAY-voh), Bosnia and Herzegovina's capital. His life doesn't seem much different from that of kids in any European or American city.

An aspiring writer, Damir is plugged into the modern world. His friends all have cell phones and Internet access. A steady diet of foreign movies and cable-TV programs has helped make him fluent in both English and German.

Yet Damir lives in a country still recovering from a bitter war. Little more than a decade ago, people risked their lives simply by going outside. Today, kids like Damir can walk to school and play in the streets and parks of their neighborhoods. "I don't have any impression that there was a war," Damir tells JS.

The City's Scars

Sarajevo sits in a valley surrounded by some of the world's most beautiful mountains. From April 1992 to February 1996, it was ripped apart by war. Bosnian Serb forces surrounded the city and bombarded it with artillery and mortar rounds. The bloody siege—the longest in modern history—killed more than 10,000 people. About 1,800 of those killed were children.

The most notorious atrocities in Sarajevo occurred at the city's Markale (mar-KAH-lay) market. On two occasions, mortar shells landed in the crowded square. The blasts killed more than 100 people and wounded hundreds of others.

News of the shelling horrified the world. The United States and allied nations sent their military to bomb Bosnian Serb positions. Eventually, Serbian leaders agreed to participate in peace talks.

By the time the war ended, Sarajevo was in ruins. Its office towers and high-rise apartment buildings had been reduced to burned-out husks. Many centuries-old buildings were scarred by shells and bullet holes. Minefields on the outskirts of Sarajevo still pose a danger.

Yet, for the most part, the city has made a remarkable comeback. Most buildings have been repaired or replaced. New skyscrapers are under construction. Once again, the Markale market is bustling, with no traces of the war's carnage.

"Our Generation"

To many young Sarajevans, the recent war is ancient history. Haris Begic (hah-REESE BEG-itch), 12, is one of them. Haris was born in the Netherlands, where his parents had fled to escape the siege. His younger brother and most of his classmates also were born abroad. The families returned to Bosnia after the war, when the children were still small.

Haris is glad that his family came back. The Netherlands is a very flat country—not a great place for his passion, downhill skiing. Sarajevo has three world-class ski resorts. They are a legacy of the 1984 Winter Olympics, which were hosted by Sarajevo. A decade ago, the mountain where Haris practices was covered with land mines. After the mines were removed, the ski areas were repaired. Once again, they attract skiers from all over the world.

Most days, Haris heads to the slopes or to physical training after school. His ski team has traveled to Austria and Spain for training and competitions. Of the hundreds of Bosnian skiers competing in his age group, Haris is ranked No. 5. His ultimate ambition: to win an Olympic gold medal—preferably with Sarajevo again hosting the Games.

"Right now, the Austrians, Swiss, Germans, and Italians dominate the skiing world," Haris tells JS. "But soon Bosnia is going to catch up. It's our generation that’s going to make Bosnia and Herzegovina one of the top nations in skiing and soccer." Popular Culture

Mahir Povlakic (MAHheer POHV-lah-KITCH) might add basketball to the list of future Bosnian strengths. The 12-year-old is a forward on his school's team.

"Basketball is very popular here," he says. "We watch the NBA. I like the Los Angeles Lakers because Kobe Bryant plays for them. I follow all the playoffs."

Yugoslavia was a basketball powerhouse that challenged or defeated the U.S. in international competition. The countries resulting from its breakup still produce top talent. More than a dozen current NBA stars are from the former Yugoslavia.

Cable TV brings weekly NBA games into Sarajevan homes. It also keeps teens up on popular music, as does the Internet.

"Hip-hop and rock are popular here, especially 50 Cent," says Mahir, "but I like Linkin Park."

Internal Strife

Mahir, Haris, and Damir are typical middle-class Sarajevans. But they live in the relatively prosperous capital city. Not all Bosnian kids are as fortunate.

With a per capita GDP of only $6,600, Bosnia is one of the poorest countries in Europe. (By contrast, the U.S. per capita GDP is $46,000.) Full-time workers in Bosnia make only about $500 a month, and the unemployment rate is 45 percent.

The war isn't the only reason for Bosnia's poor economy. New borders drawn in the breakup of Yugoslavia cut off many old factories and businesses from their customers.

The people of Bosnia face internal divisions as well. The peace accord signed in 1995 divided the country into two regions—one for Bosnian Serbs, the other for Croats and Bosniaks.

A rotating trio of Presidents, one from each ethnic group, heads the federal government. This arrangement doesn't work very well because the groups tend to mistrust one another.

That's why the 1995 agreement established a supreme authority: a High Representative appointed by the international community. European Union (EU) peacekeepers support that authority.

Bridging the Divide

Before the war, people of all ethnic groups lived peacefully side-by-side. They often intermarried and attended social events together. Now, in some parts of Bosnia, kids of different ethnicities are taught in separate classrooms.

But in Sarajevo, where schools have never been segregated, few teens are bound by the ethnic mistrust of their elders.

When Damir is asked if he knows the ethnicities of his classmates, the concept is alien to him. "Well, yes," he says. "This year we had a girl from Algeria. We could tell she wasn't from Bosnia right away."