The Bosnian war was raging. It sent its ripples across the world, carrying its people far from their homeland, within them the untold horrors they had witnessed and been part of, as they escaped the Final Solution, to seek refuge in another part of the earth.
And so it was that one Spring day in 1992 the classroom door of a language centre in South Australia opened and a trail of silent students entered. These were no innocent children, for in their eyes was something far beyond lack of just English language. Big boys aged seventeen sat at desks which were far too small for them and they did not complain. To the left and to the right were the children of Asia and Russia, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia and South America.
The Serb and Bosnian students remained remote, learning methodically and unemotionally. I couldn't reach them, for their suffering had been too great.
One boy insisted on running around the classroom, bending to pick up imaginary pieces of what? The older boys shook their heads and somehow reassured the class that this was alright and to be ignored. Weeks later, when that boy could talk to me a little, he told me he was picking up the pieces of his father.
Stories began to stumble out from numb minds. Dark hidden parts of the brain buried deep the sinister horrors of war which day and night continued to rage, only a jet flight away.
We wept in the classroom for the suffering that was to continue for months. Survival had wiped everything away, emotions, goodbyes, treasured belongings, memories, grandparents, earth that had been tilled for generations. The human spirit had been numbed and bright light almost extinguished. These young men and women had been forced to the edge of humanity and they knew it.
Long before the media began to print stories of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, revenge and possession, these young people hinted of the darkness which only comes with hate and madness.
The little boy and his friend had sat side by side at school from the age of five until age of 15. Then one day the Moslem boy came into school to be confronted by a sea of hate. Going into the schoolyard, he was met with a hail of stones and a threat of being shot. His friend from childhood told him to go and never return to the school that he loved.
Children sheltered in cellars, living on potatoes and water whilst in the streets above, whole families disappeared. These young people had embraced the comforts of the Twentieth Century and within the space of a few months, time turned inwards and back down the dark tunnel they were pushed, into a deep morass of ancient vengeance and cruelty. Ill equipped, vulnerable, they suffered the degradation of the human soul.
I desperately sought to come to terms with this horror, for my language lessons merely gave them words. I wanted them to heal. They were the lucky ones, a mere handful who had escaped from a place of hell. They needed hope.
Then one day a Vietnamese boy made a blue paper crane, following our reading of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. He carefully threaded it onto a piece of fishing line and hung it from the ceiling. The next day three more appeared, then more and more! We were caught up with this hope, this fragile idea which we could embrace, without religion or a past. We would hang one thousand paper cranes from the ceiling of the classroom, and this might give us hope and peace.
Once the idea caught momentum, there was no stopping us. At every opportunity we would fold all available pieces of paper into paper birds. Yes! we would have one made from newspaper, we would make large and minute cranes, we would let them fly at different levels. Asian crane makers sat next to big Serbian and Bosnian boys, gentle Cambodian girls grouped together with Bosnian and Vietnamese girls. And so the birds appeared., first thirty, then fifty, then one hundred.
We used up our lunch hours and breaks and even time at home. Parents joined in and bags of paper cranes appeared. We laughed with delight as the number went up and despaired when several of them fell from the ceiling.
Conversation began to flow. Friendships were made. The wind blew through the open door and we discovered that the cranes moved gently around. On hot days the ceiling fan had the same effect on them. There were times in that small classroom as we made the birds when we were completely silent, wrapped in our own thoughts, all immigrants and often homesick.
They appointed two girls to count the birds so that one thousand would hang from the ceiling. One of the girls was Serbian and being tall, she could manage the job easily.
I will always remember the day when the thousand birds finally hung from the ceiling. It was on that day that she cried and told me that she had to return to Belgrade as her visa had run out. She and her mother had been visiting an aunt in Australia when the war broke out. Regardless, she must return and re-apply from within the former Yugoslavia. I never sat anyone else at her desk, placing it carefully to one side of the road.
The weeks passed by. The students sat proudly under the paper cranes, united in one creative act which did so much to mend their spirits. We thought of Sadako and how proud she would have been.
Finally came the day of their graduation. At the party we celebrated their success and said our goodbyes. I walked back across the schoolyard. Then I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. For there was the Serbian girl walking, and now running towards me. She threw her arms about me. Yes, she had her visa, but not before being caught up in the horror of war. She had spent months sheltering in a bombed out cellar. But please would I take her to the classroom. She had to look at something.
I pushed open the door and she silently stared at the birds. I pointed out her desk and she sat down. Finally I broke the silence for I desperately needed to know what had given her the faith and strength to survive. Had she turned to God, prayed for safety? She turned and smiled.
'I thought of our thousand paper cranes and I knew that we would be safe. I have waited all this time to come back and sit beneath them.'
In that moment we were united by that single belief, a hope for the human spirit which can lift itself up and beyond the agony of despair.
We laughed and danced around the room together in relief, then we climbed on top of the desks and I showed her the name of the students written inside the wings of the cranes, including her own name.