In Belgrade, school's out but the learning continues

`Longest holiday ever' brings lessons of war

War In Yugoslavia

May 13, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- For 16-year-old Ivan Najman, this is the year bombs replaced books, history came to life and summer vacation seemed to drag on forever.

When NATO went to war against Yugoslavia, Ivan and tens of thousands of other young people found themselves living what might be called a student dream -- no more school.

Yet after seven weeks of sitting at home, watching television and playing soccer with only a few neighborhood friends, Ivan yearns to attend classes.

School is out for summer.

"Well, I'll remember this year for the start of the war and the longest holiday ever," Ivan says.

While war has disrupted much of daily life in Yugoslavia, it's schoolchildren such as Ivan who have endured unusual hardship. They never imagined they would miss math, science and geography.

But many do.

The onset of war and quick end to the school year left many here disoriented. A country that was justifiably proud of its school system -- once considered among eastern Europe's best -- was forced adapt to wartime restrictions.

Under the threat of air raids, authorities decided it would be safer for children to stay at home, rather than congregate in school buildings.

High school graduation ceremonies and proms have been canceled. Grades are being calculated on about two-thirds the normal work.

Staff still report to work, and some students have come trickling in for exams or conferences in a bid to boost their grades. But the academic year, which normally runs until mid-June, is essentially finished.

Nearly everyone realizes that the student population -- from kindergarten through graduate school -- will be trying to make up missed work for months.

"There is a big hole, now," says Marina Cvetkovic, who teaches English at a local high school.

Even though she has more time now to prepare lessons at a private language school, Cvetkovic admits that she misses her high school kids, the challenges they posed and the spirit they exhibited as they grappled with English.

"I couldn't believe the last day of school when we heard that we would be bombed in the night," she says.

Cvetkovic tries to stay in contact with her students via electronic mail. And she says that once the war ends and classes resume, presumably in the fall, the students will surely come back to learn English, even though NATO's air war is being led by the United States.

"Well, you need English, everywhere," she says.

But with plenty of free time, some kids seem to be doing anything other than polishing their study skills. In the middle of the day, kids can now be seen on their in-line skates by the Danube river, playing in parks or shopping with their parents.

There seems to be a creeping isolation developing among children who are accustomed to spending their days in the classroom.

"I miss my friends," says Ivan, who has a crew cut and a quick smile.

Besides watching television for much of the day, he plays soccer with neighborhood kids. The war provides background noise, whether it's the thump of bombs or the conversation among children and adults.

"I'm on the edge trying to anticipate what's next," he says. "We're talking about the war and what will happen. But we're also talking about the usual things, sports, the NBA."

`Just scared'

A very few students such as 18-year-old Mirjana Miladanovic are so flustered by the bombing that they remain indoors.

"It's boring, but I can't do anything else," says Miladanovic, who curls up on a sofa in the late afternoon as the television lights up the living room. "A lot of my friends and I are just scared to be in the streets."

When the war started, Miladanovic figured that at most, she would miss a month of school.

"This is too long," she says. "We have too much work to do when school starts again. That's what I'm thinking about."

She is also beginning to think about what she has learned about herself and her city during the conflict that has left chunks of her central neighborhood in rubble.

"The buildings are different, but the people are better," she says. "This whole thing bonds people, makes them friendlier. But I learned I'm very afraid of bombs."

There's a different mood among those who attend the University of Belgrade, where lectures were canceled the day before the war. The school remains open for exams, but few students have been able to study properly because of tension surrounding the air raids that often go all night.

Debating the future

"I just don't have the nerves to study," says Jelena Vujic, a 19-year-old sociology student with a splotch of green and blond dye in her brown hair. "The bombing is loud and the windows are breaking."

So she reads, watches television and learns to play the guitar.

And with her friends, she debates the course of the war, the country's future and the lessons people have learned while living under the threat of bombs.

"We could be dropped in a jungle with a knife in our mouths and survive," she says.

Even though she would like to get back to studying, Vujic says there are now too many distractions. Besides, with bombs dropping, who has time to study?

For the students, it's time to talk, to socialize, to party until the air raid sirens sound an all-clear after dawn.

"Life looks a lot different," she says. "If people want to party, come here."

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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