The Broader Picture: A child's view of a terrible war

Click to follow
LAST NOVEMBER, when Dubrovnik was first besieged, my husband Uwe and I had a fax from friends on Korcula, a small island on the Adriatic. They had formed a local Red Cross committee to look after the thousands of refugees flooding in from the war in Yugoslavia and were asking urgently for help. The big charities told us they were fully committed elsewhere, so we decided we had to do something ourselves. With one of our daughters, Tess, we started a relief agency called Lentils for Dubrovnik, which by now has sent in 120 tons of food and other aid. At the end of July, my husband visited Korcula and Dubrovnik to find out how we could give more help. He brought back these pictures by refugee children in playgroups and primary schools, who are encouraged to draw and paint as a way of coming to terms with their experiences of violence and death.

The pictures are by Bosnian and Croatian children between three and eight years old. The Bosnian children have travelled over the mountains from Sarajevo and Mostar; the Croatian children came by ferry from Dubrovnik and the villages around it, which now form a wasteland 50 kilometres to the north and south of the city.

Korcula's usual population of 20,000 has been overwhelmed by 12,000 refugees, most of them women and children. Priests and nuns and the Red Cross workers who distribute the aid are giving all the love and care they can, but the children are unhappy and anxious. Crouched in fetid underground shelters, they have endured night after night of shelling and weeks of hunger and thirst. Families have been split up and no-one knows if their relatives are alive or dead. Some children have seen their mothers raped, their fathers' throats cut, and their homes burned down. One three-year-old drew a picture of his mother and painted blood pouring out of what appears to be an abdominal wound; another painted his grandmother, her body completely red.

The killers are often not strangers, but neighbours - men living in a previously close, intermarrying community who have turned into murderers. The four-year-old who says, 'Do not kill me, Uncle] I will be good]' speaks to the killer as a well-known and trusted adult he is used to calling 'uncle'. It is as though the child thinks that, if only he were good enough, the violence would stop. Some of these children have lost both parents and, like many children, understand the death of those they love as happening because they have been naughty. It is a terrible burden of guilt for any child to bear.

Yet many of the pictures are vigorous and positive. Houses, even when they are shown burning, look astonishingly solid. The tombs visited by one little girl's mother are drawn with a monumental permanence which suggests the ritual of mourning, and its public recognition, helps to heal. Planes dropping bombs are mixed with jolly-looking birds and coloured flags. The image of the ship occurs often in the paintings of the over-fives - ships which bring food, and, above all, hope. Many children drew the Zlarin bringing in the baby food Heinz gave us.

Most of these pictures are done by pre-school children, but we also have ones from older children. In these, there are obvious gender differences. The girls draw flowers, women in frilly dresses and people busy collecting water for cleaning and cooking - somehow conveying a reassuring sense of normality. The older boys, however, focus on the fighting. They draw strutting warriors, men firing guns, bayonets and tanks with intricate detail and precision, often cramming in every weapon of destruction they can. The greatest danger is that children who live with the reality of violence grow up to become violent in their turn. Perhaps we ought to ask what we are we doing to our children's minds. While boys cherish an image of manhood like this, can the killing ever stop?

Lentils for Dubrovnik, Standlake Manor, Witney, Oxford OX8 7RH

(Photographs omitted)