A city of lost hopes

May 12, 1995

Amela Sadagic on the war in her beloved Sarajevo. The day I left Sarajevo in April 1992 I thought I would have the kind of weekend I always had: a short visit to my parents' home 70km away in the industrial town of Zenica, a cafe chat with old schoolfriends - nothing unusual. But it was not like that at all.

War broke out and the weekend at my parents' home turned into a week, then a month. I had only started work in September 1991 at the University of Sarajevo's faculty of electrical engineering as an assistant teacher on the computer graphics course, the first such course for undergraduates for nearly 20 years. We had big plans - starting with an MSc course. I had passed my MSc exams and my thesis was ready.

Phone calls were the only connection with dear ones in Sarajevo. Red Cross messages, something we thought of in relation to remote countries and people, became our reality. New "networks" emerged, networks of people working as radio-amateurs.

I used to phone Sarajevo daily. Every call was a story in itself. My friend Dina lived with her husband near one of the frontlines in Sarajevo. Often without water, electricity and gas, she still found the strength to go to work daily. Once she told me: "Can you believe it, we have got the most recent version of PC Windows."

Many buildings were destroyed, among them the National and University Library of Sarajevo. Other options had to be found. If a faculty was out of reach because of fighting, lectures were organised at neighbouring faculties. With no computers, with minimal equipment, they decided to continue. Many people left Sarajevo, including academics. Students close to graduation offered their help. Retired professors were drafted in. Classes in cellars and shelters became part of everyday life.

I realised I would not be able to finish my studies in Sarajevo - at least not before the end of the war. My flat was destroyed, research material was inaccessible and there was no documentary evidence I was about to finish the MSc course. I want to work as a lecturer and do research but my plans have had to be postponed.

For two years I worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross and now I am at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London doing a PhD. In Sarajevo the academic community has not stopped working and 50,000 exams have been held since the war began. Some 5,000 students have obtained university diplomas during the war and about 20 doctorates and many masters degrees have been awarded. One friend who was studying architecture told me that she had to finish her final project in a cellar in Dobrinja, near Sarajevo airport. Her neighbours gave her their last stocks of candles so she could do her project by candlelight. To go to the faculty of architecture, a few kilometres from her home, she had to risk her life. At the end she managed to graduate.

It is very hard to learn or to teach when your very existence is threatened. And for the 7,000 students and 800 teachers in Sarajevo this is the fourth year they have been cut off from the rest of the world. Yet academic initiatives have flourished. "ZaMir'' (For Peace) is an email network sponsored by supporters of the peace movement, including the Soros Foundation, which has also been supporting students in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia. And activities by the "Students for Sarajevo" movement include help for 24 departments of the University of Sarajevo.

Although it is difficult to talk about the future -this war has taught us that the future is a relative and unpredictable thing - once I finish my studies I plan to return and help Sarajevo rebuild its economic and social life. When I communicate with my friends still in Sarajevo, one thought is always present: the love we feel for our city.

Amela Sadagic is a postgraduate at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London.

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