On a serene campus, grim memories of war Refugee: In the shade of St. Timothy's School, a teen-age girl from Sarejevo finds the greatest luxury is being sheltered far from the gunfire and shellings that have devastated her homeland.

October 30, 1995|By Josh Greenberg | Josh Greenberg,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Ajla Cico is a long way from her home in Sarajevo, but not from the memories.

"I was surrounded by bullets, by grenades, by mortar shells, by people dying," said Ajla (pronounced Eye-La), 17, a student since September at the serene St. Timothy's School campus in Stevenson.

The posh boarding school has just 91 students, hailing from 16 states and 7 countries -- but only Ajla has experienced war.

At St. Timothy's she is studying English as a foreign language, taking ballet and volunteering at the school library. She also joins other St. Timothy's students in tutoring third-graders at the St. Ambrose Outreach Center in Northwest Baltimore.

The school boasts a 5-to-1 student-faculty ratio, and the 234-acre campus features such amenities as a horse riding center with indoor ring and stables, and paddle-tennis courts.

Ajla is lucky to be there, so far away from the gunfire and rocket shells of Sarajevo -- a city where her father's family has lived for 500 years, she said.

Because of the dangers in Sarajevo, school classes had been split up to be held in the basements of houses. "We would go in in the morning and then down the stairs to study in the cold cellar," she said.

Two of Ajla's classmates were killed while she was living in Sarajevo. One boy died with his family, while eating lunch at home, after a grenade landed on their table. A grenade also killed a girl along with a group of her friends, as they laughed at an outdoor cafe -- during a cease-fire.

"That's why I don't believe in cease-fires," Ajla said.

'A normal city'

She said she decided to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina in January 1994, to live with relatives in the Croatian city of Zagreb -- "a normal city" by her account, "with normal conditions for living."

In Zagreb, she waited three months for the approval of her paperwork to head for the United States.

Her mother's wealthy American relatives flew her to Los Angeles, where she spent a year in their Beverly Hills home and in a large public school system before coming to the East Coast.

"Because of the war and to be safe, because of a better education and because of a lack of food, because I had nightmares and for a normal life, I left for America," Ajla said.

"I was very depressed when I first came. I was desperate and I was shocked," she said, describing her difficulties in coming to grips with American culture.

Adapting well

Ajla moved in with other relatives in Washington in July, and they arranged for her to attend St. Timothy's, where tuition and boarding fees total $21,300 this year.

Deborah Cook, the head of St. Timothy's, said Ajla has adapted well. "She seeks out every activity on campus. She has passion. No matter what's she's been through, Ajla is willing to work hard and she has held onto a very dear sense of humor."

"St. Timothy's," according to Ajla, "is fabulous because you live with people your age and you share happiness and sadness together. It's marvelous. It's adorable."

Then she asked, "Adorable, did I just use that word right?"

Bitter beginnings

She said she was 13 when the war began. "On April 6 in 1992, many people were protesting in Skenderijija, in Sarajevo, when sniper fire came from the Holiday Inn hotel and the first victim of the war was killed.

"She was so beautiful, this woman that died, like a movie star, and she was a medical student at the university."

Ajla paused, then added, "Everyone, they thought it was just temporary, nobody believed it would turn into anything."

Her memories of home are not all of war. She recalls summers with her parents on the Adriatic coast, and skiing with them in the mountains around Sarajevo.

While ethnic rivalries and fighting have fractured her homeland, Ajla says, "I think it's impossible to separate the parts of my country."

Her relatives come from nearly every region. "My grandfather was 88 last year and because he lived in Serbian territory and because he was Muslim, and he was under the pressures, he died.

"My uncle married a Serbian and some of my relatives are Serbian and I really don't mind. Everyone is so mixed it's impossible to separate. No one thought about religious differences before the war.

"Now everything is all changed. The refugees who have lost their houses will never be satisfied. They will never accept peace. For people who have lost their parents, their relatives, there will always be tension. For people who have been raped, for them it will always be wrong. But they must live to forgive."

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