War In The Balkans: Children paint horrors from memory

THE DRAWINGS start the way any childish artwork begins: with a square house, some clouds, a tree. But look away for a few moments and the smoke billowing from a picture-book chimney is turned, with a few strokes of the green felt pen, into a roof ablaze.

Even the tanks and planes so beloved of boys with crayons have a sinister significance here. Art therapy in Kukes is pretty basic - paper, a coloured pencil or marker and fierce concentration - but the results testify to the horrors witnessed by the children of Kosovo.

Luljeta, 13, has drawn a road, a house and several figures in green ink - and great spreading stains of red. "It was in Meja I saw this," she says, pointing to one recumbent figure. "This is one man who was killed. I saw his blood spread out, and those are the people that were walking. I was walking." We have listened to numerous adult refugees describing the mass killings in Meja village. It is even more horrifying to watch the children paint their memories.

"Meja" is written at the top of Valter's complex drawing, which shows a road, a house, a figure with a gun. "That is a Serbian policeman, shooting Albanians," explains Valter, 11, matter of factly. Along the road crossing a river, he writes the words "police - 17 men". And then, "They separated the men on the bridge."

"My mother is here, but my father was separated in Meja," he says. "I don't know where he is."

In this tent, the noise level is relatively subdued, the children focused on the drawings, the Unicef counsellor watching and chatting and preparing drawings for display. Outside, there is laughter and shrieks as other children's groups play or recite poetry and sing songs.

"Men were separated from women - the Serbs are killing many people, killing people for nothing," recites Valbona, before running from the group and into the arms of a Unicef worker, Elvana Zhezha. "She told ... how scared everyone was when two shells exploded near by, and how her sister's husband was wounded," Ms Zhezha said. A few minutes later Valbona was back in the performing circle, dry-eyed. Several of the women watching, however, were in tears.

It is, say Unicef officials, a vital first step that children who have seen such horrors be allowed to sing, write and draw of their experiences. "It's very shocking how young the children are - children of six and seven sing stories about war and draw violent images of death and destruction," says Penelope Lewis of Unicef. "The first step must be to express what they have been through."

The children do know "normal" childhood songs and poems, but are simply not willing to perform them yet. The point of all these activities is to provide a distraction from boredom and depression, to get them playing and communicating with other children. "And through these activities, children have a natural medium through which they can express what they have been through," Ms Lewis says.

It is a wonder that the children, shy of speaking directly about their experiences to strangers, are still so friendly and smiling; few display signs of hostility. The Unicef counsellors are doing all they can to help them - but what they really need is help in returning home to a Kosovo that is free from the Mejas of this war.