War In The Balkans: Children of war in danger

SHE WAS a beautiful little girl, 18 months old, who had been loved. She was found alone and crying on the steps of a mosque in Kukes. The only words she said were, "Mother, truck, KLA."

The little girl, who was given the name Atdhetare, is one of several hundred children who have arrived in Albania and Macedonia without any adults after being ethnically cleansed from Kosovo. They are being looked after by adoptive families with the usually forlorn hope of being reunited with their parents.

Yesterday, in recognition of the need to care and counsel these lost boys and girls as well as 160,000 other children in refugee camps, the UN children's body Unicef and the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees signed an agreement in Tirana to establish "Child Friendly Spaces."

The centres, in 20 camps in Albania, will provide education, sports and other aspects of childhood which have so far been missing.

The children are receiving psychological counselling after their traumatic experiences. Many have seen relations and neighbours killed and have been chased out of their homes - which have been burnt behind them. Some saw their mothers and sisters raped.

Child Friendly Spaces will not only attempt to give structure to the lives of the children, but also protection. There have been persistent reports of teenage girls lured or abducted into prostitution from the camps, boys enmeshed in criminality, and others wanting to become boy soldiers in Kosovo.

In addition, 3,000 pre-packed schools are being flown into Albania. The scheme has the backing of Nato and will be overseen by the OSCE.

Atdhetare, which means "love of homeland" in Albania, was treated for bronchitis and diarrhoea and placed with the Misini family of 17 children and 18 adults, themselves refugees. The search to find their natural parents had not so far been successful. The girl was terrified of large vehicles and men in uniforms, but with the efforts of Unicef counsellors she seems to be recovering from her greatest fears.

One nine-year-old boy, asked to portray his home, kept drawing a rug. At first he would not say why, but eventually burst into tears and told how the family were forced to move home 17 times and the only thing left from the original home was the rug which he had faithfully rolled up and taken with him through his travels.

Then there was the 14-year-old girl who lay in a foetal position for two weeks and would not talk. She too has recovered to an extent after counselling.

Robert Cohen, of Unicef, said: "It takes a while to draw these children out. When we first start working with them they tell the same kind of stories and make the same kinds of drawings that children make everywhere in the world - fairy tales and nursery rhymes, pretty houses, trees and flowers. But once they begin to unburden themselves in the drawings the houses catch fire, there are bodies among the flowers and the stories are of people killing and burning.

"These children have been through often unimaginable experiences, but they are astonishingly resilient and hopefully most will recover," he said.