Refugee children mentally scarred

LONORA, a 13-year-old Kosovar refugee, saw her best friend blown to pieces in the mistaken Nato raid on a refugee tractor convoy. She could not utter a word for weeks after arriving at a camp here with her family.

Ramadan, a 13-year-old boy, wandered in the mountains of southern Kosovo for two months after seeing Serb police burn down his house. He would not stop speaking when he got here, diagnosed as hyperactive and aggressive to other children.

Jeton, also 13, has not seen his parents since the Serbs snatched him while he was buying bread, then put him on a bus to Albania. He, too, was aggressive and could not get along with his cousins or other relatives in his refugee camp tent.

They are just three examples of the traumatised children of Kosovo. Tens of thousands more still in their homeland could be even more psychologically damaged, a problem that will persist long after the refugees return.

A team of counsellors from the United Nations Children's Fund, Unicef, believes psychological reconstruction will be at least as important as the physical rebuilding of Kosovo.

The team has already had considerable success. Lonora eventually began talking and now chats and jokes freely. Ramadan has calmed down and has gone from hating his 11-year-old cousin to being best friends. Jeton writes, and sings Kosovar folk songs.

"Every single child is traumatised. Some saw their villages on fire, some saw their parents killed, others roamed the mountains and lost all sense of stability," said Elvana Zhezha, a 24-year-old Albanian social worker who leads the 30-person Unicef team.

"I grouped together 20 girls aged 14 to 18 who would not speak to anyone. I told them the story of my life, day after day, for a week and a half, telling them secrets I never even told my mother. Eventually they began trusting me and now all of them talk," Ms Zhezha said. "We have to look to the future. These kids are the future of Kosovo. What they find when they go home will be horrific. But we're trying to make them strong enough to cope."

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