War In The Balkans: Refugee camps - Children paint the images of terror

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The Independent Online
AT FIRST, the damaged children of Kosovo drew pictures of fairy- tale houses surrounded by picture-book flowers, images that surprised the aid workers who had been brought in to help them. "We asked if this was their home, and a surprising number said `No, this is the house we will go back to'," said one of them.

But, after a few days, the images began to change. Lulzim, aged 10, drew tanks bearing down on a group of houses beneath a sun with a sad face. On one side of the road was a mangled body in a violently scribbled pool of blood. The letters UCK, for Kosovo Liberation Army, were written near the body.

Ibrahim's picture was of a machine-gun, a knife and an automatic pistol drawn with such accuracy that it astonishes all those who look at it. He is aged only eight.

Gahinete drew burning houses, a man hiding behind a tree with a gun, and bullets spewing from a tank. She is 10.

They are among 500 children who have passed through a Unicef nursery based at a disused cinema in the northern frontier town of Kukes, the place through which more than 300,000 refugees - at least half of them youngsters - have passed after running the gauntlet of Serbian ethnic cleansing.

Their experiences have left most of the children troubled, but a considerable number have been more severely traumatised. "When they first come here, many are withdrawn or hyperactive, they can't mix with the other children, and display signs of trauma", says Penelope Lewis, of Unicef. "We play some simple games with them and for many, the act of just playing and laughing again helps. But there are others who need more."

Among them was the two-year-old girl who was found abandoned near a mosque on the edge of town. All attempts to find her mother, one of the refugees, have so far failed. She was taken in by another refugee - the only other person she would let near her - and she would say only the words "mother, tractor" and "UCK". After two weeks of careful help from a trained counsellor, she is now improving, sometimes she even smiles.

And there was a three-year-old girl who would freeze and cry helplessly whenever she heard the engine of a vehicle. Counselling established that Gezimjeta, whose name means Happiness of Life, had become traumatised by the noise of the Serbian tanks which had surrounded her family's home for days. She is improving, but still clings to her father. He says that when they return home to Kosovo they will walk.

There was one girl in her early teens who lost the use of her legs for 10 days after witnessing some horror, while a 13-year-old boy is receiving help for an injury sustained to his foot when a grenade was thrown at his family during an incident of ethnic cleansing last year. Three others were killed.

"All of these children have seen terrible things" said Elvana Zhezhe, co-ordinator of the programme. "We encourage them to draw what they have seen and then talk about it. This helps and once a child has told a story often enough, it feels to them as if the story is about someone else."

There are only three counsellors to help the refugees, but more Albanians are being trained to go out and work with the other traumatised children of ethnic cleansing. The counselling among the miserable hordes of Kukes is already working its magic, encouraging smiling faces in a place where more than 100,000 people are living in conditions more likely to make one cry.

Heavy rain has turned already muddy refugee camps into quagmires. Families spend hours each day trudging ankle deep in mud from wet tents to water standpipes, or standing cold and soaked in queues for bread and tinned fish or beans. The aid agencies have worked hard to keep so many people alive and to prevent the spread of disease, but the conditions in which the displaced have been living are appallingly degrading.

The refugees have been spread among about a dozen camps run by different nations or aid agencies. The Italian camp is known for its good food but bad sanitation, the Greek camp for its weatherproof tents, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)/Medecins sans Frontieres camp for its deepening mud but good healthcare, and so on.

Many refugees have been taken in by generous Albanian families. Others have paid unscrupulous landlords for overpriced places in disused factories. In one old carpet factory, we found hundreds of people living in squalor, sharing just four toilets - only one of which worked - eating cold food and washing clothing outdoors.

The policy now is to move the refugees south, to various parts of Albania and out of range of Serbian artillery. The UNHCR says no one will be forcibly moved, but in the early hours of yesterday, an entire camp of rough tents and tractors covered in plastic sheeting was cleared out in darkness from a strip near the town's mosque, its occupants apparently being given little choice by local police over whether or not to board waiting buses.

It might not be a subtle way of helping people, but anywhere - outside the former Yugoslavia - has to be better than here.