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Bosnia Guns Fall Silent, but Mental War Rages On

Psychology: A nation's soul was blasted full of holes, and that takes a long time to heal.


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The ghosts come at night.

She's cowering in her house, back in the farthest corner and calling for her father. The sound of boots crunching on gravel grows louder. She can see the Bosnian Serb soldiers--their faces covered in ski masks.

"Daddy, help. The ghosts," she yells. Then she wakes up, shivering from reality: Her father was killed in Rogatica in eastern Bosnia, her house destroyed, her sister raped.

Mirsada--a slim 12-year-old who likes red nail polish--worries each day about bedtime. That's when the ghosts come.

A 15-minute drive away in an apartment building gutted by artillery, an old Bosnian Serb woman hangs out a dress on the line. A snowflake lands on her hand and she watches it melt.

"I feel like winter," says Irena Slavinovic. "Dead like winter."

The battlefields in Bosnia may be quiet but there is little peace in the hearts and minds of those who waged war, witnessed war and fell prey to it. Another fight--without bullets or shells--is just beginning.

It's fought by children forced to learn about death when they should have been learning the alphabet. It's soldiers bewildered by free time or too callous for silly everyday rituals. Widows and rape victims try to piece together scrambled lives. Everyone peers into the future and tries to make plans for the first time in 3 1/2 years.

There have been no hug-and-kiss celebrations as the new year unfolds under a peace plan that appears to be working. It wasn't that type of war. The soul of a nation was blasted full of holes, and that takes a long time to heal.

"We had to shift quickly from peace to war and now we have to do the same from war to peace. People may start to go through the motions of getting back to a normal life, but inside--inside their minds--it's a much, much slower process," says Seila Kulenovic, an assistant with a mental health counseling project run by the French group Doctors Without Borders.

"It took a few minutes to sign a peace plan. It will take a lot longer for people to get used to it."


"How can I start making plans again?" Jasmina Dervisovic mutters such comments as she looks for something to burn. Wood for the stove is the immediate objective. The future will just have to wait.

"Look, Mom. Is this OK?" asks her 14-year-old son, Ahmed, holding up some cardboard boxes.

"Good boy," she says. "But don't forget we need wood."

Her family fled their village near Zepa in eastern Bosnia last summer just ahead of the Bosnian Serb army. Her husband and older son stayed behind to fight. She has no idea where they are. "Dead? Captured? I don't know," she says, never taking her eyes off the ground along what used to be a perilous shooting gallery on Sniper Alley. She curses the snow. It makes it harder to find whatever bits of sticks or wood are still around.

Dervisovic and her son zigzagged with other refugees to Sarajevo. They found an abandoned apartment. No heat, but a wood-burning stove. Now, there's just one job each day. "Wood, wood, wood," she says. "Food, food, food."

Peace means only that you can hunt for wood without risking your life. Her home--if still standing--is in the Serb-controlled area under the peace plan. She refuses to move or try a new life until she knows the fate of her husband and older boy. If it takes a month, fine. A year, even two? "Then it will have to be that long," she says.

She kicks a lump in the snow. Wood? No, a metal pipe.

"There are many people who have no concept of the future. It's not normal, but it's normal in Bosnia," says Salih Rasavac, director of Sarajevo's Corridor project, which has offered psychological counseling since December 1993 from an apartment whose windows are covered with plastic sheets.

Rasavac believes the refugees from the villages--particularly the women alone--face the toughest road. "It's a tragedy to be in town," he says. "They are completely lost. In the village, they were good women, good neighbors. But in Sarajevo, they are nothing."

Corridor gives village women 2 1/4 pounds of wool. They are told to make anything--a sweater, a scarf. It's then given to someone who has less. "It shows them they still count," Rasavac says.

Before they work, they're told to say:

I am strong.

I am beautiful.

War cannot harm me at all.

"Those are good words," says one of the refugees. "But just words."


Amir is puzzled by the question. He repeats it himself: "What do I want to be when I grow up?"

"I never thought about it," says the 15-year-old who has two pieces of shrapnel lodged in his calf. "I didn't see myself doing anything but becoming a soldier. I was already practicing shooting."

Amir started to smoke during the war. He's up to a pack a day. But he won't finish his last one unless he can scrape up the money for another pack--always the cheapest local Drina brand.

"A job," Amir says. "I suppose I'll have to do something. But what makes you think the war won't come back?"

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