Bosnia's disabled children swim against indifference

Sarajevo (AFP) –


Born without arms, Ismail Zulfic happily paddles across an Olympic-sized pool in Sarajevo: the six-year-old learned to swim thanks to a coach who fights public inaction over Bosnia's disabled.

Saturday marks the UN's International Day of People with Disabilities, which aims to break down barriers and raise awareness. In Bosnia, where nearly 10 percent of the population is disabled, the road ahead is long.

Three times a week, Ismail's parents drive him to the capital from their home in the industrial city of Zenica, 70 kilometres north -- a considerable financial burden for his father, a steel factory worker, and his unemployed mother.

But the trips have allowed Ismail to become a proud member of Spid, the only swimming club in the country for children with disabilities, which was set up in February.

Shy and unwilling to talk to strangers, Ismail nevertheless leads a column of eight girls and boys wrapped in towels, some of them limping, along the poolside to start training.

- 'Becoming a family' -

Bosnian children with disabilities get almost five times less state aid than maimed war veterans, while disabled access to schools, sports halls and other institutions remains hugely limited.

Amel Kapo, a 30-year-old sports graduate in Sarajevo, decided to set up the swimming school after he noticed children with disabilities were coming to the pool without professional supervision.

He was convinced nobody would deny support to such a project, especially not the authorities, but all he could get from them was a one-off grant of 1,000 euros from the culture ministry.

The training is given for free by Kapo and three fellow volunteers, but the monthly bill to use the municipal swimming pool is around 650 euros, paid through donations from two local businesses.

As the children learn to swim, their parents watch from a terrace cafe. "We have become a family," Kapo said.

There are now about 50 children in the club from all over the Balkan country, which is home to 3.5 million people -- 300,000 have disabilities, including 84,000 who fought in the brutal 1992-1995 civil war.

Social benefits weigh heavily on the budget, where nearly half of the active population is unemployed. And former soldiers are favoured.

- 'Systematic discrimination' -

According to Zarko Papic at the country's Social Inclusion Foundation, wounded war veterans receive up to 950 euros a month and civilian war victims can get 650 euros.

Other citizens with disabilities, such as Ismail, get a maximum of 200 euros to help with medical equipment and other assistance -- a figure his parents say is not enough.

"This is systematic discrimination, established by legislation," Papic said.

"With such a serious violation of human rights, Bosnia cannot obtain candidate status for accession to the European Union."

Disabled Bosnian children face marginalisation from an early age, with restricted access to basic education owing to poor facilities and unprepared teachers, according to UNICEF.

Ismail's father Ismet Zulfic said his son was refused by several nurseries in Zenica before they found one that would admit him.

Bosnia ratified the UN convention on rights for people with disabilities in 2010, and human rights ministry official Saliha Djuderija said the government was trying to harmonise its own legislation.

But she admitted that people with disabilities were the "most vulnerable to various forms of exclusion" and that the system of state aid needed reform.

At the Paralympic Games in Rio this year, Bosnia sent just one volleyball team and two shot putters.

But Zulfic is hopeful that one day his son might swim for a Bosnia that takes better care of its citizens.

"The state is what it is, but I am a proud parent," he said.