Bosnia’s youngest refugees get ready to go home

CALBE, Germany (AP) — Before any of them could walk, they fled.
Later, when they were old enough to ask where they came from, the 13 Bosnian 5- and 6-year-olds living at St. Elisabeth’s orphanage were told they left their homeland as babies because people were shooting each other. They would go back when it stopped.
“Are they still shooting?” 5-year-old Mladin asked, eyes cast downward.
No, his teacher answered.
In the simple logic of children, Mladin understood that he will be returning soon to Sarajevo. Just how soon is a question German and Bosnian officials are still working out.
The Bosnian government wants 31 children — 4- to 10-year-olds who have been living in three German orphanages since 1992 — to come home as soon as possible. Room has been made for them at Sarajevo’s Bjelave orphanage. A driver was sent to pick them up Thursday.
But even as a bus idled outside St. Elisabeth’s, Saxony-Anhalt state officials called off the trip until they are satisfied that the children will be safe and comfortable in their new home. Two officials are to travel to Sarajevo this month to see for themselves.
Germany repeatedly has postponed sending home its 320,000 Bosnian refugees because of concerns about living conditions in Bosnia. Most German states have decided to put off forced repatriations until after the winter.
Bosnian officials have warned of a humanitarian disaster if too many refugees return too quickly, but they also hope that the children’s arrival would signal a return to normalcy for other refugees.
“The problem for the public and officials in Germany is, why must the children leave before the adults,” said Franz Stenner, a spokesman for the Saxony-Anhalt state government.
In the four years since the young refugees living at St. Elisabeth’s arrived in Germany, Elke Giersch has watched their personalities emerge, and their fears recede.
At first, a clap of thunder would send their nursery into cacophony. The sight of a bus was no easier: It reminded them of their dangerous ride through the mountains ringing Sarajevo during a daring evacuation. Two children were killed when the bus came under fire.
The children at St. Elisabeth’s took their first steps in Germany, and have learned to speak both German and Bosnian.
Emir has lost his stutter, and a speech therapist thinks Alen will too. Anna went through a difficult period when she would bang her head against her bed. Sophie’s the handful, constantly overstepping the boundaries.
“Now, the children are developing normally,” said Giersch, but she worries about whether conditions in Bosnia have improved enough for the children to go back.
“They’ve been here for four years and don’t know anything about the culture that they came from. If they only have an orphanage to go to, they could stay here,” she said.
The children’s earlier fear of buses has been forgotten, and Giersch said they were excited when the bus showed up to take them back to Bosnia.
“They know they are going to Sarajevo, and they are happy. But they don’t know the difference between taking a vacation and going back,” Giersch said.
The children could have been adopted “10 times over” by German families, said St. Elisabeth’s director Kunibert Stitz. But the agreement was clear: They would go home as soon as it was safe.
Some may have families waiting for them, like young Drita who was found on a Sarajevo bridge with a note from her mother: “I will find her once this hell is over because they have destroyed everything.”
“We knew the children could only stay as long as there was war, then they would go back right away,” said Giersch. But she and other staff at St. Elisabeth’s were frustrated that they were given only 24-hours’ notice to prepare the children for the journey, only to be plunged into limbo.
While they wait for a decision, duffel bags packed with new clothes for winter have been stashed expectantly on top of tall closets.