Building Civic Education in Bosnia

During the summer of 1996, American and European teachers participated in the Civitas program described in the previous article. Its aim is to train Bosnian teachers in the use of curricular materials and methods promoting education for democracy. Among the American teachers who visited Bosnia in July to train their Bosnian colleagues were Pat Feichter, Gail Huschle and Mary Bristol. Here, they share some of their memories with the readers of Social Education. Their visit was organized by the Center for Civic Education of Calabasas, California, with the support of the United States Information Agency.

Would I Return? In a Heartbeat!Pat FeichterMaine South High SchoolPark Ridge, Illinois

When the Center for Civic Education asked me to volunteer to teach in Bosnia this summer, I jumped at the opportunity. Many people thought I was crazy, but I knew it would be a unique experience and one in which I could make a positive contribution in promoting democratic values.Entering Bosnia, it does not take long to experience destruction. Our seven hour bus trip to Sarajevo passed through dozens of war ravaged villages and towns. Some were selectively damaged, with only certain areas felled by artillery shells, while others were totally leveled. The once beautiful city of Mostar was one of the worst damaged. Everywhere in this Muslim-Croatian divided city there was evidence of war.Sarajevo, once the proud host of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, is a city of burnt-out hulks. Over 1,300,000 artillery shells have struck Sarajevo. The effects were extensive and devastating. The Holiday Inn, where we stayed while in Sarajevo, is still marked by the effects of war. There are elevators and guest rooms with bullet holes and a stairway being repaired from a direct artillery hit.I was assigned to teach in the Canton of Travnik, 60 miles north of Sarajevo. I worked with one other American teacher and two Europeans, one from Germany and the other from Switzerland. This was the first time any of us had worked together. Flexibility and a willingness to compromise was a basic need. We were able to work together well.Our class had thirty participants. These were teachers of Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian background. We worked entirely through interpreters. Our facility was a Jesuit-founded secondary school 114 years old.Apprehension is the best way to describe our feelings going into this two-week course. Would the class understand us? Would they like us? Would they be willing to participate in simulations and group projects? The answer to this was a resounding yes!The Bosnian teachers, our students, were a joy to work with. They had a great sense of humor and an incredible interest in learning about democracy. Our mock trial and simulated election were two of the most popular activities. We became so close to members of our class that we were frequently invited to their apartments.People often ask me if I was frightened being in Bosnia. The answer is no. As long as you used common sense, there was nothing to fear. I walked the streets of both Travnik and Sarajevo in the evenings without a worry. However, you could not plan picnics in the countryside. An estimated 8 to 11 million landmines are a danger. You must stay on paved roads and sidewalks.One of the saddest effects of the war is the huge number of refugees living in squalor. They have very little food to eat. One man showed me a small piece of goat cheese, which was his only allotment of food for the day. These displaced people have in many cases been living in refugee centers for more than two years, and often don't know where their loved ones are or even if they are alive. The most we could do for them was to offer clothes, some food, and a small amount of money.Ethnic tensions do exist in Bosnia and are usually just below the surface. One evening on the streets of Travnik, I was approached by an irate group of Croatians. They were very upset because the person who selected the Bosnian teachers to attend our program was a Muslim. They were concerned about bias in the selection process. From time to time, we would hear stories about churches and mosques being bombed. Ethnic tensions are a fact of life in Bosnia.Would I return? In a heartbeat! Working with the Bosnian teachers was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. In a small way I feel I may have helped further democracy and peace in this troubled land. n

Beauty in the Midst of Devastation

Gail HuschleSt. Croix Catholic SchoolStillwater, Minnesota

When I remember my three weeks in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is not the amazing physical beauty of the country nor the irony of that beauty contrasted with the terrible devastation of the towns which haunt me. Rather, it is the bond I formed with two remarkable women, Hajra Alibegovic and Azemina Masinovic. As we sat for one last cup of Turkish coffee in the Sarajevo Bashtasherie (Head Market), they asked me one last question: "After what you have seen here, do you feel we are foolish to want to forgive and forget?" Did I answer them "correctly?" I don't know.First, I should tell you about these two women. Hajra was my alter-ego, my translator. By the time two weeks had passed, she could anticipate what I would say next, often using the same inflection and hand gestures. She and her husband stayed in Travnik even though they might have fled. They were a secular family. They saw themselves as Bosnians first, not as members of an ethnic or religious group. They did send their two daughters abroad to study. Their younger daughter, Samra, served as our German translator; she hadn't been home for four years. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to miss the formative teen years of your child. Unimaginable. Hajra and her husband remained because, as the only English teacher, Hajra could not leave her students-all of whom maintained that she was the best teacher they ever had. As a psychiatrist, Hajra's husband could not leave his patients, many of whom bear the burdens of life in the military. This couple had links to Croatia, including a comfortable family home in Dubrovnik, yet they chose to stay in Travnik because they identify themselves as Bosnian. After their beautiful home on Vlashish Mountain was destroyed by the Serb forces, they found a small flat in town in which to withstand the four years of merciless shelling. Some of the blasts landed just a few feet from their building. Hajra somehow makes a positive out of this negative. She says she is liberated from the material things of life and now values friends and family more than ever. Perhaps that's why she gave me a lovely piece of lace handiwork from her own collection, and slipped a silver bracelet onto my wrist as we parted, saying, "There, now you must return because you are my sister!"Azemina is Hajra's best friend. She is Muslim. Correction! She is a Bosnian who lives as a Muslim in faith. Her husband's family has lived in Travnik for over 100 years. Her daughter was married in Germany during the war; she could "attend" through photos alone. I was invited to share a meal with Azemina and Hajra at Azemina's home. There we shared "pita," strawberry juice, and Turkish coffee. Azemina is an expert in the tedious art of making filo dough which encases the spicy meat of "pita." The men stopped by to invite us to walk around town in the nightly social promenade, but Azemina and I conspired to keep our evening only for the ladies. She told them my left leg hurt so that we could continue the talk of children, husbands, and weddings. She gave me Muslim prayer beads as I left to remind me of her whenever I prayed a rosary, since I am Roman Catholic.Throughout the two weeks, these women made me understand Bosnian hospitality. Both took delight in their shared culture; both took pride in the traditions of the other. Neither has patience for split national designations: Bosnian-Croats or Bosnian-Serbs or Bosnian-Muslims. Both want Bosnia for Bosnians.So, what was my answer to their last question? Are they foolish to forgive and forget the harms done in the last four years? No, I said, to take sides is to negate the nobility that your friendship signifies. To take sides is to make the idea of Bosnia-Herzegovina obsolete. n

Making Connections Between Cultures

Mary BristolAnchorage School District, Alaska

"We now have clean air and empty pockets." This was how the residents of Zenica described the effects of the steel plant not operating there. High unemployment and buildings in need of maintenance were signs of war time difficulty. The vegetable gardens on the lawns of our hotel attested to the struggle for survival. Although predominantly Muslim, many residents spoke of the desire for an ethnically diverse and united Bosnia-Herzegovina as they offered us warm hospitality.Participants in our seminars were well prepared and actively involved. While their community has many pressing needs, it was evident they have a strong commitment to civic education. Class discussions were intense and questions were pertinent. They embraced new content and methods such as mock trials and town meetings. Participants vacillated between optimistic planning and confronting difficult realities.Our study of constitutionalism, authority, justice, and the role of the citizen in a democracy elicited powerful responses. Discussion of civic responsibility led to the sharing of experiences. One teacher told of observing a colleague stealing petroleum vital to the war. She struggled to determine what her responsibility was in those circumstances. Another recounted rescuing his mother from a war zone. He described his search, their hunger, and them walking many kilometers and crossing a mountain. Another explained that few had survived the sniper fire while ascending that particular mountain. It put my experiences in perspective.To provide practice in policy-making, we used Project Citizen, the program designed by the Center for Civic Education to help middle school students learn to work together with their communities on issues of public policy. As teachers identified community problems, it was clear that some-such as environmental issues, welfare, and educational concerns-are universal. Language differences meant that observing body language and obtaining translations of daily written summaries became important tools. As groups began working, I realized how much I normally use conversations to guide questions and evaluate progress. Awareness of different patterns of inter-cultural communication, especially of distinct speech and politeness systems, was essential to productive teaching. I used listening tools intensely. Our Bosnian colleagues spoke in a unique pattern. First they would tell us what they would be saying, next they would say it, and finally they would summarize what was said. Once I understood this pattern, it was easier to listen for the pertinent information. I tried to modify my presentation but found it difficult to change.We tried diligently to show respect for each other. That meant slowing down as we worked to build understanding. I tried not to ask questions too soon. While Americans are informal and direct, our hosts asked questions only after much conversation about a topic. Each tried to observe the other for clues to politeness. When our host said, "We might consider going to the restaurant" and then pulled out another cigarette, we realized that the leaving ritual was long.Bosnia is complex, fragile and difficult to understand. Regardless, the connection with Bosnian teachers was strong. We want the same things for our students. We worry about their preparation and opportunities to contribute to society. That is the essence of teaching.