On an autumn afternoon in 1993, following heavy artillery fire, my older sister Edina gave me a backpack and rushed me through deserted streets to a local school in Visoko, a town 30 kilometers outside of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, where we lived with our mom as internally displaced people. The shelling had further battered the already damaged school, making it possible for us to sneak in through what looked — to a 9-year-old me — like an exciting tunnel made of rubble.
Inside, an eerie silence filled the corridors and the empty classrooms. Holding each other’s hands, we walked through the debris until we found our way to what once was a library, where books had neatly lined white shelves a year before, and now hundreds of books were scattered on the floor. I watched as Edina got to her knees and started to collect some books and put them in her backpack. I bent down and started to do the same. Half an hour later we left the school with two backpacks full of stolen books.
Our local school was closed the first time in fall 1992, because local authorities saw that it was no longer safe after it was hit by artillery fire. For a while, teachers would gather a few students together and teach in the basement of a local post office or in houses that were considered safe. Sometimes, in the nearly four years of war, the school would open its doors and allow us to study in classrooms looking out on the inner garden — hoping there was less of a chance in the interior to be killed from a mortar or artillery fire. But overall, together with thousands of other children in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I spent more years in basements trying to survive the shooting and cold and hunger than in school.
During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 until 1995, instead of being safe places for children to learn, play, and make friends, schools were often places of summary execution and unlawful detention of civilians, where women, men, and children were subjected to torture, inhuman treatment and sexual violence. A high school in my hometown, Foča became the place where many women and girls from the area were held as sex slaves. According to the World Bank, 50 percent of the schools in Bosnia were damaged or destroyed. They often came under deliberate fire, were burned down, taken by the army and converted into barracks or weapons storage, or used as shelters for displaced families.
There is no data on how many children grew up without receiving a proper education during the Bosnian war. What I do know is that for the kids in my neighborhood, the books that my sister and I stole from the school were one of the rare sources of education in the winter of 1993 and the following year.
The books were not only a source of knowledge. Having a book during the war was like a window to another world. The books and stories kept us alive.
More than 20 years have passed since the Bosnian war. However, today, nearly 24 million children worldwide cannot go to school and receive an education because their schools — just like schools during the war in my country — are not safe due to war or insecurity.
However, there is reason for hope. It’s called the Safe Schools Declaration, a new international commitment by countries to do more to ensure that schools are safe places for children, even during war.
To date, 59 countries have endorsed the Declaration. This includes the majority of both all European Union and NATO member states. It shouldn’t be difficult for other countries to sign too.
By joining the declaration, countries pledge to restore access to education when schools are bombed, burned, and destroyed during armed conflict, and make it less likely that students, teachers, and schools will be attacked in the first place by investigating and prosecuting war crimes involving schools, and minimizing the use of schools for military purposes so that they do not become targets for attack.
Preparations are under way for the Second International Conference on Safe Schools, hosted by Argentina in Buenos Aires in March. The conference is an opportunity for governments around the world that haven’t yet joined, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, to sign the Safe School Declaration, and firmly stand together committed to prevent children from ever again having to risk their lives to get books and education.