Education’s Berman Examines Learning in Face of Bosnian War

Issue Date: 
November 12, 2007

David Berman has made many trips to Sarajevo, but it was his first trip there, to the University of Sarajevo in 1995, that set the stage for his work in Sarajevo and his resulting two books. When he made that initial trip, he was carrying with him an article from the Dec. 14, 1994, Chronicle of Higher Education about the struggles of Bosnia’s universities during the war.

His second book, The War Schools of Dobrinja: Reading, Writing, and Resistance During the Siege of Sarajevo, will be published this month by Caddo Gap Press.

“The (Chronicle) article made such an impression on me,” said Berman, a professor and coordinator of social studies education in the Department of Instruction and Learning in Pitt’s School of Education. In the article, Bosnian faculty members are quoted as saying that everyone had deserted them. “It was an indictment of the university community,” Berman said. “No university had tried to help.”

In the fall of 1994, Seth Spaulding, now a Pitt professor emeritus of education and then director of the Institute for International Studies in Education in Pitt’s School of Education, initiated the Program in Educational Policy, Planning, and Technical Cooperation in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BIH) under the auspices of UNICEF.

The project’s mission was to assess the work needed to lay the groundwork for efficient, effective, and relevant postwar education in BIH.

It was at Spaulding’s invitation that Berman made the 1995 trip to Bosnia. One of the first people Berman met in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Sarajevo, located 100 yards from the front line, was Zvonimir Radeljković, chair of the Department of English Language and Literature, who was pictured in the Chronicle article.

Berman remembered holding up the Chronicle article next to Radeljković and saying to him, “This is you!”

The experience of meeting Radeljković at the University of Sarajevo stayed with Berman.Like Berman, Radeljković was a university educator. He and his colleagues were saying that the Western world had abandoned them. Berman noted the pathos of it all: “I saw Sarajevo in starker terms—the bullet holes in the walls, no heat, and they were still trying to have classes.”

For Berman, the question was how they managed to do this. He then asked, “How can I help?” And Radeljković invited him to come back to teach.

By the afternoon of the day of Berman’s arrival in Sarajevo, three children had been killed by snipers, and the United Nations Protection Force had closed off the road to the university. Berman couldn’t return to the school.

Berman, who had been a high school teacher years before, planned to return to Sarajevo the following summer to teach at the university, but the fighting escalated. Radeljković told him to wait, because it wasn’t safe. Berman went back to teach just after the siege was lifted, in the spring of 1996.

“Part of my responsibility (at Pitt) is to transform our students into teachers,” explained Berman. “Here was the perfect example for me to show students that teaching is more than methodology and to give them a wider perspective on teaching. What were the lessons for us in this incredible struggle to continue educating students in spite of the war? What could I bring back as a teacher/educator that would benefit our students?”

Berman’s connection to Bosnia has endured. For more than a decade, he has conducted research to understand how the citizens of Bosnia reconstructed their educational system and lives during the four years of the siege. He received two Fulbright Scholar Awards, in 2001 and 2006, to help fund his research.

Berman’s first book, The Heroes of Treća Gimnazija: A War School in Sarajevo, 1992-1995 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), was about an academic preparatory school on the front lines that was destroyed by shelling in the early days of the siege of Sarajevo, in 1992. The second book is a case study of the war schools of the Dobrinja community, which enemy forces cut off completely from Sarajevo in the first months of the Bosnian war.

In his initial research for The War Schools of Dobrinja, Berman learned of the Dobrinja War School Center, created by a group of Bosnian educators, that served as the administrative framework for elementary and secondary education.

At the time of the siege, approximately 3,000 elementary school children lived in Dobrinja. There were three elementary schools, two of which were on the front lines, and the third, located in the middle of the settlement, was shelled into rubble. This left no physical school building for these children. There also were 800 to 1,000 secondary school children who had attended schools outside Dobrinja.

“All the children of Dobrinja needed to find alternatives,” explained Berman. “They were taught in basements, shelters, stairways, corridors—in any available building that was relatively safe, since there were snipers and shelling across the whole city.”

In the preface of his new book, Berman quotes Smail Vesnić, former director of the Dobrinja War School Center and now an expert advisor for the Ministry of Education and Science of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina: “We didn’t fight with guns, we fought in this way, to defend our homes, our families. We saved those kids. We moved them from the streets to the classroom, and we saved them.”

According to Berman, it was important to continue to educate the children in spite of the chaos. In the book, he relates the Bosnian war schools to the schools of the East European ghettos during the Holocaust. There were the same struggles. Being in school helped the children to forget about the horror that was going on around them.

“This is a story of the human condition and the human spirit,” said Berman. “Schooling is the lens through which we view the Sarajevo community under conditions of extremity.”