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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 October 2005, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Bosnia war children live in hope
By Peter Burdin
Producer, Return To Sarajevo

Boy runs in sniper alley in Mostar, 1993
Children, as well as adults, were caught up in the vicious fighting
Ten years after the war in Bosnia ended, the BBC's world affairs correspondent Allan Little and producer Peter Burdin returned to Mostar, where more than 30,000 Muslims were forced out of their homes by Croat soldiers.

Mostar had seen some of the most vicious fighting of the war.

After being forced from their homes, 30,000 Muslims then suffered nine months of shelling as they huddled in basements with little food and no running water, completely ensnared by hostile forces.

Allan Little and I came here in 1995 to meet the survivors of that siege. And we met two remarkable children who had lived through the war and were presenting a weekly radio show for children of the siege.

Thirteen-year-old Alem and 11-year-old Mirad were doing this as part of a Unicef programme to help traumatised children come to terms with the horrors they had witnessed during the war.

They told us how they had been "ethnically cleansed" from their homes across the River Neretva in west Mostar.

"The soldiers came with a truck and they said you must go on that side, that's your country this is not your place," Mirad said. "They destroyed my door, coming in with guns and said 'Come out, if you don't we'll shoot you'. They took my cousin, he was 18, they killed the whole village and burned it."

Returning home

He added: "For kids it's very hard, they have lots of traumas. I saw almost 100 grenades were shelling in one day, 20 people died in one hour and that was the worst period. Then there was the hunger and everything else."

Ten years on, we returned to Mostar to try and find what happened to those two little boys.

We've built some bridges between us. We're not thinking about the war and for us that's great

After a long search and much help from Unicef and Radio Mostar, where the boys used to broadcast their show, we finally tracked down Mirad.

He is now a sensitive and thoughtful 21-year-old man. He lost most of his schooling during the war, but he is now a second-year student at the University of Mostar. He told us he was determined to use his war experiences to help others.

"I study at medical school. I think I'm a good person and I just want to help other people, to help make their lives easier," he said. "I really like it. I think I will be a good doctor and help people."

In a remarkable twist, Mirad and his family have returned home to the west bank of Mostar from where they were forcibly removed and have rebuilt the family home. Mirad took us through street after street of the ruined blackened shells of buildings, still a post-war landscape of stark, deliberate destruction.

It was hard to believe that the family could survive in these ruins. All the buildings are still pock-marked with shrapnel and bullet holes, most looking as if they could collapse at any moment.

Coming together

Then we reached his little house, tidy and clean and nestling in the debris of the war.

Bridges are being rebuilt - both literally and figuratively
"When we came back it was terrible," Mirad told us. "We had no power or energy, there were no street-lights, it was just like a horror movie. I was scared and had to run fast through these streets to get home safely."

Despite these difficulties, the fact that Mirad and his family have returned is a tremendous step on Bosnia's road to peace. Slowly, falteringly, the ethnic cleansing that was forced at the point of a gun, has started to reverse itself.

The two communities, once at war, have started to knit together again. Mirad's family are Muslim, most of their neighbours are Croat. Mirad is studying at a predominantly Croat University.

"In my year there are four or five Muslims and so many other young people from other ethnic groups, but they are trying to help us and we help them.

"The separation isn't big but it's still there just a bit. We've built some bridges between us. We're not thinking about the war and for us that's great.

"I have lots of Croatian friends and we go out together. The future I think will be better for our generation."

We reminded Mirad that just 10 years ago, Muslim and Croat boys of his age would have been shooting at each other a few streets from where we were talking.

He found that concept unthinkable now.

Still missing

As we walked around Mostar with Mirad, the pock-marked ravaged streets are visible reminders of the vicious civil war, but in the hearts of the people - of the young in particular - something is stirring. The young people want a better country. Mirad articulates a careful, brave and defiant hope.

People who survived the war can't forget what they've done to us. Maybe forgive but never forget.

"Many young people want to go abroad but I want to stay here in Bosnia," he said. "The future I think will be better than now. We want to make this a normal country."

But what of Mirad's co-presenter of that Radio Show, 13-year-old Alem?

Despite various leads and clues we were unable to trace him. Some say he drowned in the River Neretva, others that he left Mostar. Perhaps he was simply lost in the chaos and confusion of war. No one is sure.

But we leave the last word to him. Back in 1995, when we met him as a small boy, he spoke a haunting truth which echoes through the generations wherever there is war and suffering. On that day, Alem's words belied his youth and held some universal appeal.

"People who survived the war can't forget what they've done to us. Maybe forgive but never forget. I want to say to all the world: if you want a war it has to be between armies not civilians. That's my opinion."

Return To Sarajevo was broadcast on BBC World Service and on BBC News Interactive at 0905BST on 26 October. You can hear it again online.

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