Plea to stop Sarajevo brain drain

July 21, 1995

A Bosnian World University Service official has made an urgent plea to step up aid for Sarajevo University.

Vesna Besirevic, who heads WUS Sarajevo office, is visiting countries in western Europe with her daughter Nina to rally support for higher education institutions in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sarajevo University is suffering a severe shortage of teachers, books, equipment and facilities. Its printing shop has had to rely on machines that are 100 years old. The university library and several institute buildings have been devastated. Out of 1,400 teaching staff, 500 have left and only a few visiting professors have come. In the faculty of law, there are only six professors, out of an original 42. Student numbers have dropped from a prewar 23,000 to just 6,000.

On April 11 this year, the university celebrated its 45th anniversary, by documenting its work before and during the war.

"This was an important event for all of us," says Ms Besirevic. "Rector Faruk Seleskovic wanted to demonstrate that we have been suffering a lot but are still alive.

"Signs from outside that things are happening are important. People in Sarajevo tend to think we are forgotten. They need hope for the future."

This could help stem the exodus of lecturers. While the war may have started this, with many students and lecturers killed, academics are emigrating increasingly because they see no future for intellectuals in Sarajevo. WUS Austria has warned that this could end in the university bleeding to death.

Ms Besirevic says that a meeting with Michael Vorbeck, head of the European Council's department for higher education and research, was "very encouraging".

The European Council's activities focus on supporting refugee students and lecturers from the war-stricken areas, and contributing to a better coordination of aid measures that are under way. The council has also pledged its assistance in restoring higher education in the region when the war is over.

Establishing a WUS Sarajevo office was initiated by Walter Benedek, head of WUS Austria. Ms Besirevic, who is a lecturer at an education centre for upgrading bank staff, set up the office in April together with some Sarajevo University students. It also acts as an information and counselling centre supported by the European Union.

WUS Austria has also set up the Academic Lifeline for Bosnia, which maintains a fund for the immediate relief of sufferings of the Bosnian academic community. WUS Sarajevo is responsible for implementing its activities. Ms Besirevic says getting out of Sarajevo was a "very dangerous adventure. I originally wanted to leave on June 16, with a larger group who had postponed their departure, but decided to go earlier, on June 13. It was the last day possible."

She told higher education officials, heads of student organisations and state officials about the situation in Sarajevo at a meeting of the Anti-Racist and Anti-Xenophobia working group in the Bonn ministry of education, science, research and technology in Bonn. Vesna Besirevic and her daughter want to visit institutions and organisations in European countries that are already involved in aid campaigns or would like to know more.

Nina Besirevic, a second-year student of journalism and a WUS volunteer, said that people outside Bosnia-Hercegovina should not wait until the war is over before they help. "Wages for professors are required now. Students need food, clothes, and books. So money is really needed immediately.

"What we really do not like is the obsession of western media with devastation," Nina complains. "Pictures of weeping grandmothers and massacres create a wrong impression. We are normal people, just like everyone else, and we want to get on with life.

"Sarajevo is our town, and we want to remain there. Besides, we can't all go abroad," says Nina. "But some of us have to travel to establish a network of links and keep the academic lifeline going for the future."

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