Ethnic identity training in Bosnia and Herzegovina begins in the classroom.
There was no Santa Claus in the Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina of my childhood. The white-bearded fat man who assessed the worth of children’s obedience and brought them presents was called Deda Mraz—Grandpa Frost. Having dispatched his proxies to schools and kindergartens in the preceding weeks, he showed up at your home in person (though always unseen) on New Year’s Eve, at midnight or so, just for you. He was non-denominational and non-ideological and delivered presents to all obedient children regardless of their ethnicity or political convictions. The old man was a civic, communal character, someone everyone waited for and was happy to see. He was welcome before the war, even during the war, but, it turns out, not so much after the war.
In December 2008, for instance, Deda Mraz received a punch in his fat gut from Arzija Mahmutović, who at the time was the director of the Children of Sarajevo, the public institution that operates twenty-four kindergartens in the city. Ms. Mahmutović refused to admit Deda Mraz to any of the kindergartens, because she believed (though she backpedaled some after the local and international outcry) that he had no place in Islamic tradition. She had no problem with parents allowing Deda Mraz to deliver presents to the children at some other place, beyond her righteous reach.
Thus was Deda Mraz cast into the pit of Bosnian politics, undergoing public humiliation that has become a kind of seasonal tradition after the war. Soon after the end of the war, for instance, Bosnian then-president Alija Izetbegović denounced the old man as a Communist fabrication. It must have been the blood-red suit that gave it away.
The 2008 Deda Mraz affair was quickly cast as a sign of the vituperative rise of Islam, a predictable plot turn in the ongoing narrative of the civilizational clash, as played out on the small Bosnian stage. But the Deda Mraz affair was in fact far more symptomatic of the militant politicization of education—and therefore of childhood—in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, Ms. Mahmutović’s previous controversial decision had been instituting religious instruction in Sarajevo’s public kindergartens, a move that was widely interpreted as yet another step towards the already well established segregation and polarization of primary and secondary education across the country’s ethnic shuffleboard.
In the fall of 2009, I spent some time with the children and teachers of the elementary school Alija Nametak, located in Sarajevo’s Bjelave neighborhood. The first-graders’ first day of school started out with a fittingly welcoming program, not all that different from what I remember of my first day in school: a choir of kids sang a song about a school bell; a poem about a cute cat was passionately recited; another song was sung, this one about the eventful life of forest animals. The audience rapturously applauded the tiny actor and actress in a skit about a sick doll and then applauded even more for the “rhythmic section,” a group of girls who line-danced to a country-style song extolling the lasting values of snack time.
The children performed with an enchanting mixture of fright and entrancement, hurtling toward the next moment while entirely unsure what it might contain. The first-graders in the audience seemed amazed by the on-stage shenanigans. When, after the last number, all of the first-graders were called upon by their teachers, class by class, to get on the stage and enter their particular future, vast as it would be, there was a palpable solidarity among the parents. I watched the kids getting up on the stage, some reluctantly, some taking two stairs at the time, some stumbling. There was a universality in the aspirations of all present—the children becoming older in those few steps, the parents letting them go on their own, with all the attendant hopes and fears. It was no different—it could not have been any different—from the times when I climbed a similar school stage.
The classroom to which I followed one of the teachers—Fatka Brković—and the children in her charge was very different. For one thing, there were no desks—Fatka’s children sat at several round tables, while their parents stood in the back of the class, proud and concerned. The difference, small though it may seem, was important: the classroom was decentralized and smaller and the parents were more involved, reflecting a recent shift in approach to elementary education. The children now started school at an earlier age too. Most of them were only five years old.
The curricula for the “national group of subjects” differs with the pupils’ ethnic identity.
Another difference: while the children were sitting down and settling in, a young woman in an ankle-length dress, her hair covered, introduced herself to the parents as the religion teacher—the religion being Islam. She would be the only other teacher beside Teacher Fatka for their first four years. She made clear that religious instruction was “facultative” and that the parents could opt their children out. A father instantly commented that he was not going to let his daughter roam the school alone while her friends were in religion class. (I soon discovered that it was common to schedule religious instruction in the middle of the day to softly pressure kids and parents into attending.)
Religious instruction is one of the so-called “national group of subjects,” a peculiarity of Bosnian elementary and highschool education that also includes “mother tongue,” literature, geography, history, and nature and society. The curricula for these subjects differ with the pupils’ ethnic identity; subjects like math, physics and PE are presumably transethnic. While religious instruction might start very early, the other “national” subjects are not taught before the fifth grade, at which point a hypothetical, integrated class consisting of Bosniak (Bosnians of Muslim background), Croat and Serb kids would break apart each time a history class, say, is scheduled—the three ethnically identified classes of ten-year-olds would be taught three different, quite possibly mutually exclusive, histories of their pitiable homeland.
To understand the nonsensical situation in which children are trained in ethnic identity through the national subjects, one has to dive into the deep shit pit of war, peace and politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Pinch your nose and off we go.
The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was bad, but the peace has turned out to be ridiculous and demeaning. The Peace Accord signed in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, under the skillful pressure of Clinton’s master negotiator Richard Holbrooke, essentially carved up the country, within its pre-war borders. The Serbs and Croats were supported, respectively, by Serbia (in the guise of Yugoslavia) and Croatia, whose respective presidents Milosević and Tudjman negotiated and signed the Accord along with Alija Izetbegović. The Agreement assigned substantial chunks of ethnically cleansed territory to the ethnic cleansers. The Serb territories were gathered under the name Republika srpska (Serb Republic), while the Croats and Bosniaks formed a loose federation. The Bosniaks, among whom the idea of common life had the strongest support, retained the control of famously multiethnic Sarajevo and found themselves the majority in the parts of their territory abandoned by Serbs and Croats.
In some Croat parts in the Federation, the flag of the neighboring Republic Croatia is exclusively flown, while the local politicians and institutions blatantly ignore the laws of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The war ended and the three sides agreed on peace simply because continuing war would have cost each of them to lose more. The Dayton Peace Accord essentially froze the situation on the ground in hope, from the West and many Bosnians, that in some future the country could be reintegrated and refugees would be able to return home. For the Serb and Croat negotiators, the hope was that the process of destroying Bosnia and Herzegovina, which started in the war, could be completed and their respective territories joined with Serbia and Croatia proper. To make things worse, the Dayton Constitution assigned sovereignty to three ‘constitutive’ nations: Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. The political representatives of Bosnian Serbs and Croats, who had doggedly and bloodily fought against the very idea of Bosnia and Herzegovina, thus agreed to be part of the country’s government. They signed on to the Constitution, while ensuring that the state it defined had no chance of successfully functioning.
Hence, Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two ‘entities’: the Federation, which includes Bosniak and Croat territories divided into ten cantons, and Republika srpska, homogeneously populated by Serbs, due to the infamously thorough ethnic cleansing. The Federation and Republika srpska have separate armies, parliaments and state institutions, but their representatives participate in the country’s Parliament (even if only to obstruct its work—once six-months worth of Parliamentary debates were devoted to the size of letters on the cover of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian passport). All are represented by a single Ministry of Foreign affairs and a three-member presidency in which each ‘constitutive’ nation’s representative assumes the chair by rotation.
Today, Republika srpska is semi-independent and its politicians openly disdain the idea of the unified Bosnia and Herzegovina in any shape or form. Their member of the presidency has often refused to speak under the Bosnian-Herzegovinian flag or stand for the anthem. In some Croat parts in the Federation, the flag of the neighboring Republic Croatia is exclusively flown, its currency is in circulation, the schools follow its curricula, while the local politicians and institutions blatantly ignore the laws of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As for Bosniaks, they have been losing patience rapidly, which is visible in the sharp increase in exclusionist nationalist rhetoric and the concomitant Islamic passions. But even if brotherhood and unity between the three ‘constitutive’ nations were somehow to be miraculously restored, the Dayton Constitution effectively prevents the country from operating.
Take education. As of now, there are twelve ministries of education in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While there is no Ministry of Education on the state level, both Republika srpska and the Federation have their own. Furthermore, each canton within the Federation has its own ministry. Even within Republika srpska, which has a single ministry, there is the Brčko district, a territory and town with a special status, as no agreement was reached in Dayton over it. It is therefore run by a foreign administrator and has autonomous educational authority—a de facto thirteenth ministry. Even if there was a desire to cooperate and coordinate laws and ordinances related to education it would be virtually impossible to do so since there’s no state-level ministry and each canton has its own parliament, premier and cabinet. If the laws adopted by the state-level Parliament were to be enforced on the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, even in the weakened form that is the usual result of ethnic bickering and systematic obstruction, they would have to be ratified by both the entity parliaments, and then another set of ten parliaments in the Federation—twelve parliaments in total. Even if that were possible, implementing the given law would be unenforceable, since there are no state mechanisms that could do it.
Sija gave me her e-mail. She was worried that I would misrepresent her and, by extension, Islam.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a marvel of bureaucracy. There are about a hundred and fifty ministers in a country where unemployment is well above 50 percent. The government in all its various, ethnically defined, forms is by far the biggest employer and the only one that is unlikely to go through cuts any time soon; the process of making the decision to cut jobs would require it to function effectively, at least for a moment. The country is divided, both as a territory and as a state, among nationalist bureaucrats that bargain over and trade its broken parts, its unenforceable laws, the debris of its future as they plot to grab whatever is left after everything finally falls apart. What appears as inept madness is in fact a method.
The consistent and primary operating logic in the managed chaos of Bosnian-Herzegovinian politics is the logic of division and segregation. The legitimacy of the ethnic representatives and their positions within the bureaucratic system solely depends on their claim that they defend and protect the so-called national interests of their constituency against various devious designs. In the recent municipal election one of the slogans of HDZ, the Croat nationalist party, was “Let’s protect what is ours,” a sentiment that is not limited to the Croats. The nationalist parties barely have any platforms except representing their constituencies. They offer no economic program, no solutions for rampant unemployment, no interest in ending endemic corruption (criminal and political elites are essentially indistinguishable), no political philosophy beyond vulgar materialistic nationalism. Once they are elected—repeatedly, catastrophically, tragically—the representatives protect what’s ours (whatever it is, whoever we are) from the state that is supposed to be a common homeland, a vestige of common life. As elected bureaucrats they undermine the state they’re supposed to work for. If this centralized chaos (with three different ethnic centers) is to operate legitimately as state politics, all integrationist impulses would have to be quenched. All forms of identity other than ethnic would have to be vanished, so as to allow the rise of the perfectly ethnicized subject, who would never wish to be a citizen demanding from the government what ought to be his or her basic rights. The process of ethnic training begins early and never ends. Hence the banishment of Deda Mraz, religious instruction in kindergartens and the national group of subjects inflicted upon the children.
In Sarajevo, which has retained some fealty to the idea of common life, efforts are made toward integration. At the elementary school Alija Nametak, for instance, the textbooks used in the Bosnian language and literature class includes texts by Serb and Croat writers, but the school is almost exclusively attended by Bosniak kids. Of eighty-two new first-graders who ascended to the stage, there was but a handful non-Bosniak children, coming mainly from the so-called mixed marriages and Sarajevo’s Roma population. The virtually monolithic ethnic structure is another consequence of the war. Not only did a large number of Croats and Serbs (and Bosniaks) leave the city during and in the aftermath of the siege, but there was a substantial influx of refugees from Eastern Bosnia, who had been brutally cleansed by Radovan Karadžić’s killers. Though everyone I spoke to at Alija Nametak professed—sincerely, it seemed to me—their loyalty to the idea of common life, there were few others to establish the commonness with.
Teacher Fatka told me in a revealing whisper about the sleepless night she had spent worrying about a child whose parents were the only ones who declined religious instruction for their kid. She kept tossing and turning, trying to figure out how to tell the child to leave the religious instruction class. She envisioned him leaving his friends behind to roam the hallways alone and she could not imagine a way to do it painlessly. When the time arrived and the religion teacher entered the class, the child picked up his stuff and was ready to leave, but his best friend decided to join him, so he wouldn’t be alone. The story suggested that the common life was possible only in exclusion, on the fringes. “We are deepening the chasm,” she sighed.
The chasm has been institutionalized in the form of “two-schools-under-one-roof.” In some parts of Bosnia, children of different ethnicities attend school in the same building, but are meticulously segregated: they go to different classrooms, share no classes, they often have different programs and textbooks, the faculty neither mix nor cooperate. In some schools, classes begin at different times, lest children have any contact or communication before or after school.
I visited one of such “two-in-one” schools in Stolac, a town in eastern Herzegovina. Stolac was mixed before the war, but with the beginning of hostilities in 1992, many Serbs left. When Bosniaks and Croats (who were allies early on in the war) turned against one another all over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993, Stolac was ethnically cleansed by the Croat forces. They interned a large number of Bosniak men in horrible makeshift camps. After the war, a number of Bosniak refugees returned home to Stolac, but the town remained divided. At that time, the school—which was the only one in town and had been shared before the war—was attended exclusively by the Croat children. The municipal government, controlled by the Croats, refused to admit Bosniak children. Only after the pressure from the international community and the establishment of the “two-schools-under-one-roof” concept, were the Bosniak kids allowed to enter the school, which their parents used to attend along with their Croat and Serb friends, many years before the war crushed common life.
At this time, the school is strictly divided. The Bosniak section is considerably smaller; for seventeen classes of children there are only nine classrooms and to get to some of them you have to take the back stairs. The Croat part has more classrooms but is not willing to share them, Sedžad Pezo, the principal of the Bosniak school told me. (No one from the Croat school was willing to talk to me.) Mr. Pezo is a wiry, lively man, who had been a PE teacher before his appointment as principal. His father, he said, built this school, and he had worked in it for twenty-five years. Before the war, he recalled wistfully, there used to be 800 students, sharing everything. The school has operated in the “two-schools-under-one-roof” format for nearly fifteen years. He blamed the Croat municipal government for the segregation: “They don’t want to be together.” In fact, there was a World Bank loan offered to the school with the condition of integration, but, he said, “they refused.” In private, he claimed, the teachers, Bosniak or Croat, agreed; the parents were willing to integrate too, and the children were the least of the problems. They mixed and played together before school (the classes start at the same time), before being separated. He got quite worked up about apportioning the blame, most of which he assigned to the Dayton Peace Accord: it ruined education and health care and the whole country; it encouraged the disastrous partition of the country into cantons; it allowed the abnormal to become normal, and vice versa. He shook his head: “What will be happening in twenty years…?”
Principal Pezo escorted me to a classroom down the hall from his tiny office. The break was still on; the kids munched on their lunch as I talked to Aida Obradović, the teacher. A young woman in her second year of teaching, she had only one class—she took charge of them last year, as first-graders. It was hard at the beginning to establish order, she said, as the children were “aware of their rights.” The kids returned to the room and sat on their pillows on the floor. This was the last class of the day and they appeared a little tired, or, perhaps, baffled by my presence in the classroom—they probably did not see too many strangers. They might have found my non-Bosniak name—Sasha—strange and confusing, so some of them stared at me unabashedly, until Teacher Aida summoned the class. They sat in a circle and talked about the things they liked: Aldin liked math, Samra liked school, Husein liked drawing. Though all the kids were Bosniak, nowhere in the classroom were there signs, symbols or pictures related to their ethnic or religious background. There was, however, a poster created by the kids, entitled Pravila ponašanja (The Rules of Behavior), reading: “We listen to others when they talk”;“We help one another”; “We use nice words”; “We protect the school and classroom.”
The kids were polite, gentle and sweet. Teacher Aida was warm to them, if a bit limp and unenergetic, possibly due to stage fright related to my presence—it was hard to diminish your 230 pound frame in a room full of seven-year olds. And in a flash I recognized that what they were learning here—fidgeting in a circle on their floor pillows, turned toward the teacher like sunflowers—they were learning how to be with one another, how to be together, how to live a common life. Unfortunately, the commonness of that life was possible exclusively within their ethnicity.
After the period was finished, the kids stayed in the classroom, for it was time for a parent-teacher conference. As their parents filed in, taking their shoes off, the kids gathered on a mat in the corner by the window. The meeting started innocuously enough: Teacher Aida informed them about the prices of workbooks, children’s magazine subscriptions and the mandatory insurance. The parents silently acknowledged and agreed to whatever they needed to agree, but then a large young man introduced himself for my sake—his name was Nermin Bise—and announced that the parents would like to talk about busing issues. He said they were sick of injustice and discrimination. While his Croat neighbor Drago paid 5KM a year per child for transportation to school, Nermin paid 20KM a month for each of his two children. “And our children play together,” he cried. The children came to school not only on different buses but at different prices. The whole thing eerily resembled the Deep American South in the fifties—the separate-but-equal crap—except even then the buses were shared.
Nermin was the spokesperson for the parents, who were nervously quiet—they wanted to express their anger, but instead cracked their fingers or shifted their weight uncomfortably. They had signed a petition, he informed Teacher Aida, and were willing to make their children boycott school. They wanted to talk to Principal Pezo. Aida, without a word of support or objection, left to fetch him. The parents stayed quiet without speaking to their children or even looking at them. The bored children whispered to each other—they were merely present in the world of adults.
“This is the reality,” Principal Pezo shouted. “This is the reality we live in.”
Aida returned with the principal, who listened to Nermin read the petition, the gist of which was that if something was not done the parents would start the boycott on the coming Monday (it was Friday).
Principal Pezo listened, but then implored them to think of the children and avoid the boycott. Parents asked him what they should do and he could not say. “The school cannot influence the decisions of the municipality,” he told them. A turbulent argument ensued, progressing with each word towards a shouting match. The parents wanted something done. The principal said there is nothing the school could do and that a boycott would punish the kids. Then the same arguments were repeated but louder.
The children, it seemed, were getting paler. Some were visibly distressed; a couple of boys were facing the wall, as though they could not look at the whole thing.
Everyone knew that nothing would be resolved then or any time soon. The air was heavy with the misery and humiliation and anger that are the necessary consequence of life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The humiliations just change forms, anger changes the pitch, the misery is daily activity—and the paling children absorb everything. “This is the reality,” Principal Pezo shouted. “This is the reality we live in.”
What is it that we want and expect from education? To answer we have to figure out first who “we” are, to understand how “we“ come into existence. It seems self-evident to me that by passing through an education system children become citizens. Education helps them define their personal and collective identities. Ideally, it strives to give them tools so they can relate to the polity and understand themselves in some sort of communal context. In liberal democracies, the promise (and the demand) inherent in the guaranteed right to education is that the citizen who completes the system will be aware of her relation and debt to the polity. She will have had opportunities to develop a reasonably independent and inquiring mind, conscious of her rights and duties in a democratic system, ready and willing to participate. Another way to say it is that a system of education trains the subject to relate to authority—epistemological, legal, political. Not only does it disseminate knowledge, it defines what constitutes it, where it comes from and what sources of knowledge are validated by the authority and are thus legitimate.
I sat in an eighth grade religion class (vjeronauka) at Alija Nametak—the religion being Islam. The teacher, Sija Hasani, was covered but made up; she had a soft, caring voice. The kids were apprehensive, I sensed (or projected), because my name designated me as non-Muslim. But I sat in the back and they soon forgot about me.
The class was about gossip—gibet is the Qur’anic word. “Gossip is when you talk about your Muslim brother in the terms he would not like,” Teacher Sija said. “Gossip is passing on someone else’s words.” In the Qur’an, gossiping was compared to eating the flesh of your dead brother.
The kids were involved in discussion—for teenagers the concept of gossip was all too familiar. The girls were not covered, everyone wearing the uniforms of teenagehood (jeans, T-shirts, tennis shoes), and spoke without reservation. “Gossiping is a sign of weakness and helplessness,” said Adnan, the nerdy kid, clearly the teacher’s pet. Raising their hands, but not waiting to be called upon, other students offered jealousy, hatred, envy, haughtiness, need for self-promotion as the things that populated a gossiping mind. The general consensus appeared to be that gossip was “very present in contemporary society.”
They raised their hands with two fingers forming the V-sign—that was how I had raised my hand in school, many years before, in the heyday of Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia, when workers and citizens happily had mismanaged the self-managed factories and municipalities, before the war infected everyone it touched with some form of defeat. The Islam class reminded me to some extent of my Marxism classes, mandatory in my teenagehood: the air of unimpeachable moral and ideological guidance, all answers already provided, the discussion along the lines of the already determined agreement— the words and terms might have changed, but not the model. My Marxism classes—which I had regularly napped in—would have never featured a debate on gossip, however. The project of Communism, including the intermediate step of socialist self-management, had had nothing to do with the life of teenagers. The realm where Marxist doctrine had been applicable—if it has ever been applicable anywhere—was way above and ahead of us. We were getting brainwashed and prepared for future roles and engagements, which, to our relief, never came. In the Islam class, however, whatever the teenagers may have learned regarding the sinfulness of gossip—unquestionably established by the Qur’an—would be applicable at the break after the class, when some gossiping was doubtless to take place.
Religious instruction, in other words, finds ways to matter. At one point, the class conversation shifted toward the neighborhood junkie, whom all of them seemed to know, as an example of someone who had lost his way, and whom Islam could restore. The teacher was invested in what she taught—a necessary requirement for good teaching—and clearly believed that what she imparted would make a difference in the kids’ lives. She seemed to be a kind, caring person, sincere in her conviction that Islam provided moral protection and guidance.
Atheist though I may be, it was hard for me to imagine an alternative to this kind of moral instruction in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a society shattered by the war, in a failed state whose very failure is guaranteed by its Constitution, all moral, educational, and industrial infrastructures have collapsed or are, at best, barely afloat. I do not see what kind of philosophical, ethical or moral discourse could at this time replace the simple, simplistic religious commandments—the vacuum is gaping. The only way to displace religion and the moral and political framework it offers would be to somehow (re)establish Bosnia and Herzegovina as a civic, democratic state where the carrier of political sovereignty is the individual, rather than the three “constitutive” nations. The possibility of that transformation is nowhere in sight.
At the end of the class, kids politely bade me goodbye and went off, loud and full of energy. Sija gave me her e-mail address, so that I could send her whatever I was to write. She was worried, I could tell, that I would misrepresent her and, by extension, I would misrepresent Islam, to whoever my readers would be. I ensured her that I had nothing but respect for teachers and the efforts they put into educating the kids. I managed to conceal my hopelessness.
A system of education is a system of expectations. All you need to know about the ways in which a polity imagines and defines its members could be found in its education. The tragedy of education in Bosnia and Herzegovina is that the designs behind the education system—however fractured and anarchic—are easy to see, yet there is hardly a political force on the state level that could stop the brainwashing, let alone dismantle its structure.
When Fatka found a group of Bosnian children hanging out on a beach, she conducted an impromptu class right there.
The nationalists who represent the constitutive peoples want and expect national subjects, not citizens. They want children to come out of the rickety educational machine equipped to think of themselves exclusively within the framework of their ethnicity. Their individuality is superseded—politically, legally, epistemologically—by the nation. There is little space for “I,” only for “we.” What “we” expect from education is the unquestionable, unimpeachable, self-evident “we” and, consequently, “they.” The inherent purpose of Bosnian-Herzegovinian education, its true meaning, as exemplified by the national group of subjects, is not so much obedience as it is epistemological solidity. The field of knowledge is delimited in terms of ethnicity and founded on the proposition that there is only one way of being a person or a citizen. Education is a normalizing process. If you want to be yourself, you have to be one of us. If you are one of us, there are very few ways of being yourself.
Every time I saw Teacher Fatka Brković she wore a pearl necklace. The necklace seemed to express something essential about her; it gave her a serene air of dignity, wisdom, and elegance. Yet she could not be described as aloof. She frequently kissed and hugged her students and within the first couple of days they adored her. When at the beginning of one class she asked them what they loved most in the world, the children’s responses invariably included Teacher (the variables included: the sun, salami, school, strawberries, rice, playing tag, watermelon). It was heartwarming to watch her conduct the class of twenty or so six-year-olds with unimpeachable, benevolent authority, with love, kindness and respect. When the kids sat in a circle to hear a story, she rearranged them so there was no segregation between boys and girls. She made them hold hands and touch each other—she pushed them gently out of their shyness and fear. When a boy named Faruk, who obviously suffered from ADD shouted out: “I have to piss!” she spoke to him calmly and patiently. Later on she would tell me that the school had no way of helping Faruk—a single child psychologist was assigned to three schools, while Alija Nametak had no capability to help children with special needs. Faruk would have to depend on her generosity and experience.
Fatka had been teaching for thirty-nine years, her career interrupted only with the outbreak of war in the early nineties. Before the war she had lived and worked in Mrkonjić Grad, a town in northwestern Bosnia, from which she had been expelled by the Serbs. She spent the war years as a refugee in Croatia, in a tourist-less coastal hotel, taken over by Bosnian refugees. When Fatka found a group of Bosnian children hanging out on a beach, she conducted an impromptu class right there. The teacherness in her could not be suppressed by war and displacement.
She subsequently set out to organize a school for the children. She indefatigably conducted classes on the beach, solicited support from relief agencies, chased down international donations and eventually found the room for the class. She even managed to orchestrate gifts from Deda Mraz, who was really a front for an Italian charity. The packages included colorful notebooks which the children, Fatka said, “found exhilarating.”
After the war, she could not return to Mrkonjić Grad, which remained under Serb control, so she went to Sarajevo. She visited her hometown only once after the war: someone else lived in her house, the school principal was her former colleague and there were pictures of Serbian saints in every classroom and hallway.
One day, in her warm, energetic, pearly voice she told a story to the children.
“Every story has a title,” she said. “And this one is called The Three Butterflies.”
Once upon a time, there were three butterflies who were inseparable friends. They lived in a beautiful field and did everything together, they played, they flew, they teased the flowers. But one summer day, the sky suddenly darkened and huge, heavy raindrops started falling. As the butterflies’ wings were getting wet, they looked for a shelter.
The white butterfly went to a white flower and said: “Please, give shelter to my
friends and me.”
And the white flower said: “I’ll take you, but not the other two.”
So the butterflies flew off to look for the shelter for all three of them.
The yellow butterfly went asked a yellow flower: “Please help my friends and me.”
“I’ll help you,” said the yellow flower, “but not the other two.”
They flew off into the rain, because the yellow butterfly did not want to leave his friends.
The blue butterfly asked a blue flower: “Please take my friends and me.”
“I’ll take you, because you are blue,” said the blue flower. “But not the other two.”
The blue butterfly did not want to leave his friends so they all flew off.
But then the rains stopped and the sun came out from behind the clouds and dried the butterflies wings and they were happy again, flying free all over the field.
“Who helped the butterflies?” Teacher Fatka asked the children. “Who helped them?”
Photograph courtesy of Velibor Bozovic
Aleksandar Hemon has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. He is the editor of several Best European Fiction anthologies (Dalkey Archives) and the author of The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, The Lazarus Project, and Love and Obstacles. His collection of auto-biographical essays, The Book of My Lives, is forthcoming from Farrar Straus and Giroux in fall 2012. He is at work on his next novel.