Plucked from war and mother love: Thousands of Bosnian children are being evacuated to Britain in an operation that aid groups fear could become a tragedy, reports Edward Pilkington

TWO small boys stood side by side on the tarmac at Gatwick airport, shivering in the cold night air. They did not speak. No one knew for sure because nobody in the welcoming party could speak Serbo-Croat, but both boys had blond hair and blue eyes and were wearing identical yellow T-shirts, so it was assumed that they were brothers.

In all, 21 Bosnian children had stumbled off the single-engined aircraft that had carried them to England from Split in Croatia. Fourteen were unaccompanied by relatives. They looked dazed after their five-hour flight, and shaken up because their little aircraft had tipped backwards on to its tail as they crowded towards the single exit, throwing them into a heap.

The arrival of these young Bosnians on Thursday represented the beginning of a humanitarian operation which hopes to take 2,500 children out of the civil war raging in the former Yugoslavia within the next month. If successful, it would be the largest privately organised evacuation of children into Britain since the Second World War. But aid agencies fear that the evacuation, although well-meaning and legal, could have an unhappy ending.

Three hundred children from the battle zones of Bosnia and Croatia are already thought to have been brought here by groups of private individuals ranging from nationwide networks of volunteers to local pubs.

Many have been brought here without their parents. While some evacuees are genuine orphans, others have just lost touch with their families in the chaos of war or have been separated from their mothers as a result of evacuation.

Aid groups are particularly worried about the last two categories. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has first-hand experience of removing children from war zones, has issued guidelines firmly discouraging the practice. At the heart of UNHCR's objection is the desire to prevent children from being separated from their families and evacuated to distant countries. Amid the confusion of war, mistakes can easily be made.

'Recent incidents have shown that alleged orphans turned out to have parents,' the guidelines say. 'Children may become lost without the chance of returning to their families. The length of separation is usually much longer than expected.'

Alf Dubs, director of the Refugee Council, has called on the Home Office to set up a central reception and assessment agency for child evacuees. 'The Government is hoping ad hoc initiatives won't happen but, when they do, it turns a blind eye,' he said. The Home Office said it does keep 'fairly central' records on incoming Bosnians. A spokeswoman added: 'We are concerned that children are being brought here by individuals who lack expertise. But there is nothing the Government can do to stop it.'

Ockenden Venture, a charity involved in the evacuation of Vietnamese children in the 1970s, abruptly cancelled plans to launch a similar campaign in Bosnia this summer after its director, Ailsa Moore, visited the area. 'I did not meet one mother who wanted her child to leave,' she said. 'They showed a tremendous fear of being separated. A woman told me: 'Children are our future; don't take them away.' So we decided not to.' These are fears that Elizabeth Cooper, who is masterminding the current evacuation of children, has taken to heart. She agrees that it is often impossible to establish a child's family status, and admits that some of the evacuees have been separated from their mothers, although only done with their approval. But she sees it as a necessary evil.

'What else can we do? There are so many mothers who want to come out that we simply haven't got enough places for them all. Children must come first.'

Mrs Cooper is the founder of a charity based in Worthing, West Sussex, called BP Health Care Foundation (BPH). She is an old hand at evacuations, having helped Polish compatriots to escape martial law in 1981. She has a computer database of more than 2,000 British families willing to offer homes to the Bosnian children, backed up by a UK network of volunteers.

One of her most devoted volunteers is Sonny King, BPH's director of operations. He is a taxi- driver turned club-owner turned private investigator who for the past two months has done little else but work unpaid for BPH. 'I care so much for these kiddies that as far as I'm concerned my job can go to shit,' he said. The plan is that, after a period of acclimatisation, the children - who are being allowed into Britain as 'visitors' - will be 'fostered' in volunteer families around Britain.

BPH has promised the Bosnian authorities that all the children will be returned after six months and there will be no adoptions.

At the Yugoslavian end, BPH works in alliance with a secretive coalition of Bosnians, Austrians and Germans known as the Flying Tigers. They travel in helicopters into the mountain regions behind Serbian lines where they help families to escape the dual threat of shelling and the coming winter. If helicopters are unavailable they go in using convoys of cars or motorcyle combinations. It is they who decide who should be evacuated to Britain.

For the children, the arrival at Gatwick was just the first leg of a journey that took them north by coach to a temporary home near Elgin, Grampian, in the far north of Scotland. Before the Watford Gap they were fast asleep. The blond brothers had curled up together. Even in repose, their faces looked pale and lined.

Through sign language and a smattering of German, one of the four mothers accompanying seven of the children managed to convey some of the events reflected on those youthful faces. She told how they had escaped to Split from the Bosnian village of Petrovac on 12 September, travelling nearly 20 miles on foot. 'Serbians in town,' she said. 'They want money, money.' Then she simulated a machine-gun: 'Rat- tat-tat-tat.'

Daylight put new life in the children. As the coach entered the Highlands they even burst into song. The trauma of separation predicted by the aid agencies seemed anything but true.

But these are early days. BPH has no simple answer to the question of what becomes of the children should the war drag on beyond six months. Mr King talked of a plan to circulate them at half-yearly intervals between European countries. Mrs Cooper suggested their stay in Britain could be extended, although she said she would never allow families to adopt.

Agencies working with children evacuated privately to Britain from Romania 18 months ago report that many foster relationships have broken down under the strain of cultural and linguistic barriers. Several children have ended up in local authority care and discussions are being held with the Romanian government in an attempt to send them home.

Should the war end soon, BPH is adamant it will learn from the Romanian example and reunite the Bosnian children quickly with their families. Mrs Cooper said the Bosnian authorities and the Red Cross were keeping thorough records of family connections, 'otherwise we wouldn't be doing it'. But maintaining contact in a war is not easy, a problem compounded by the fact that many of the evacuees carry no official documentation.

At noon on Friday, 14 hours after they had left Gatwick and 1,500 miles from home, the children finally arrived at their destination: a large white farmhouse flanked by hayfields. The owner, Clare Findlay, had offered to put up the entire group at only 48 hours' notice. 'I wanted to help because I felt very angry that children were being put in such a terrible situation,' she said. 'I know what the UN thinks, but instead of criticising us they should do more themselves to stop the war.'

Within minutes of arriving, the children had made themselves at home, playing tranquilly with Mrs Findlay's toys. They looked as if they had never heard gunfire.

As we were leaving, one of the Bosnian women pointed to the blond brothers and said: 'Mother - Travnik.' She meant their mother had stayed behind in Travnik, a village 350km (220 miles) from Split.

But the boys looked happy enough. They were amusing themselves with a musical box which tinkled out a familiar tune: 'Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

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