Assault On The Serbs: Kosovo - isn't that a filling station?

Explaining to America
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The Independent Online
KATHERINE ELLENTHAL'S class of eight-year-olds wanted to know more. Most of them understood that something unusual was going on and a few had watched President Bill Clinton talking about it on the television. "Does the war have a name?", one boy wanted to know. "I think we're bombing Siberia," offered another.

In his address, President Clinton had suggested that Americans look for Kosovo in an atlas. And so, like thousands of teachers across America, Ms Ellenthal started the school day by reaching for the map - one of those multi-coloured canvases that rolls down over the blackboard. It was an old one, though, and not tremendously helpful. It had the former Yugoslavia but no place named Kosovo.

Nobody could blame these children for being a touch vague about Nato operations in the Balkans. In fact, they measured up fairly well against some of the adults interviewed yesterday outside. (Certainly they seemed less confused than the lady heard on the radio suggesting that Kosovo was a chain of petrol stations.) Most had grasped this: there is someone bad doing bad things a long way away and America wants to stop him.

"I know it's happening around Rome and Greece and people are getting killed," one freckled boy volunteered, his hand in the air.

Another interrupted: "We're being attacked by an ally and so we're going to try to get a peace but if that doesn't work we're going to make a war."

"I was talking to my dad," another boy chimes in. "He told me we were bombing them because they were having a war and so we have declared war too."

Someone offered this vivid picture (perhaps a little too vivid for Ms Ellenthal): "People have been taken out of their homes and put in line and told to go on their knees. And then they've been shot."

Only three of the children - it is a class of boys and girls - had heard of Slobodan Milosevic (though everyone thought the name funny). Saddam Hussein they knew - he has been America's villain for longer.

And most had trouble with the concept of civil war. "It's the North fighting South," one boy noted.

One of the girls in the class then spoke with great authority of Israel and Egypt once going to war over Sinai. The same girl added that stopping wars is important because sometimes they spread.

President Clinton would have applauded her. He would have been pleased, too, that this class had a sense that going into a war can be dangerous.

One boy turned anxiously to this visiting reporter to ask: "Will they be sending planes here?"

Somebody else was worried about the distance involved and the fact that US soldiers had to cross the Atlantic. "That's where the Titanic sank," he reminded his friends.

Bobby Brown is the manager of the petrol station just across the road from the Old Greenwich School. It's a Sunoco station. (I suggested that maybe it was Sunoco that the lady on the radio had confused with Kosovo - or, more likely, Conoco). He was not much further ahead than the children on what was going on.

"I usually try to keep up on it, the news, but you know," he said. Recently he has working shifts from 6am to 11pm. Give him a map, he said, and he could point to Yugoslavia, but as for ... Where was it again? "You see, I can't even pronounce it."