Healing Bosnia's wounds the Koranic way

The brutality of the Bosnian war has left many of its citizens bearing the mental scars of years of terror and conflict.

But psychiatrists and traditional Koranic healers are at odds over the best way to help the mentally ill.

"If I look at a man, and in my... mind, imagine some holy texts, somebody who obsessed him, a spirit, will move inside him," says Esad Cancar, a Koranic healer in Sarajevo.

Mr Cancar deals especially with cases of mental illness, but says he has also cured cancer.

He is a controversial figure in the city, feared by some, respected by many.

People speak about him as a hafiz - someone who has learnt the whole Koran by heart.

He speaks openly - up to a point - about his method of treatment.

The patient feels warm inside when Mr Cancar thinks the appropriate words of the Koran at him.

Sometimes he starts shaking, sometimes he even falls into a coma.

Mr Cancar then tries to persuade the spirit which has possessed the person to come out.

If it refuses, he says, he drives it out.

How he does that is his own secret.

For the Koranic healers, as in traditional societies the world over, most illness comes from black magic - a curse put on you by an acquaintance or a stranger.

The Ethnographic Museum in Sarajevo is full of amulets worn by peasants as a form of protection until recently - with verses of the Bible written inside for Christians, and from the Koran for Muslims.

Classical ways

Psychiatrists at the Kosevo hospital have little time for all this.

"The Koran, or any other religion, cannot be effective for our patients," says Professor Abdullah Kucukalic, the head of the psychiatric department.

With 160 beds, 35 psychiatrists, two in-patient and three out-patient departments, the clinic is "the biggest and the best in Bosnia", he says.

"Here in the psychiatric clinic, we use only scientific and modern kind of treatment."

And that treatment is largely drug-based, alongside group and family therapy.

Some of his staff tell horror stories of patients they believe have got worse as a result of traditional healers.

"One patient was acutely paranoid and his delusions were... fed by one of the traditional healers who told him that a spell was cast on him, and that by doing certain procedures he could undo that particular spell," said Damir Huremovic, a young psychiatrist at the hospital.

"That really fed this whole paranoid system, because he was suspicious of everyone... he was really in a bad shape."

But Dr Huremovic and other psychiatrists have also noticed how people with faith, Muslim or Christian, are more able to cope with illness, and are less prone to suicide.

Some lament the lack of a dialogue between traditional and "classical" medicine.

Shadow of Karadzic

Leaving the hospital, I pass a small, pock-marked brick building - nowadays one of the outpatient wards of the psychiatric clinic.

This is where Radovan Karadzic, the psychiatrist leader of the Bosnian Serbs, used to work, before he left to bomb and blast Bosnia - including parts of this hospital where he himself used to work - to smithereens.

The everyday struggle to heal the harm he did continues, by both modern methods and ancient.