An island of tolerance in province destroyed by conflict

"WE ARE all equal here," said Sadik Musliu. "Why can't the rest of Kosovo be the same?"

It says much about Kosovo today that the Stimlje Institute, the mental hospital of which Dr Musliu is director, is the only place in the whole province where Serbs and Albanians can safely live together. Outside the high fence, revenge attacks and intimidation are driving Serbs out of Kosovo every day, but within the institute, more than half of the 316 inmates are Serbian. The same is true of the children's wing, where there are 35 patients between the ages of two and 12.

"Nobody has ever tried to exclude patients on the basis of community, neither before the war nor afterwards," said Dr Musliu, 42. He became director of the hospital in the summer, when Belgrade withdrew its forces from Kosovo and all but one of the Serbian staff departed. "The Serbian patients can go into the town without fear," he said. "The institute has the respect of local people."

Unlike almost every other public institution in Kosovo, the Serbs did not wreck the hospital when they left, but that does not mean it has been immune from the effects of two years of war, ethnic cleansing and Nato bombing. There was fighting between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army within a few hundred yards of the gates, and just over the hill is the village of Racak, where the massacre of 45 Albanian civilians in January set in motion the events which led to Nato's air campaign.

"The patients could hear shooting many times," said Dr Musliu. "Through the fence they saw people being beaten, and paramilitaries driving up and down shouting: `Long live Milosevic!' They were all frightened, Serbs and Albanians." The institute's head nurse, Liriye Bistiqi, escaped death at Racak by less than five minutes, having left for the hospital just before the Serbian police and paramilitaries arrived, while Dr Musliu himself took refuge in the hills with his family during the worst of the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Serbs during the bombing campaign.

Now the doctor and the nurse struggle to restore the workings of Kosovo's only mental hospital, which, although intact, suffers from disrepair and a shortage of qualified staff. Patients wander the grounds - one woman was trudging barefoot through the snow until shooed indoors - importuning everyone for cigarettes and money. Even the older patients in the children's ward smoke, including one boy whose legs had been amputated by a train.

The younger children have just as strong a craving for affection, rushing to staff and visitors to solicit hugs. Among them is Samela, seven, who has lived in the institute all her life, because her mother is a patient. "Now she is disturbed like the rest, but she has nowhere else to go," said the director. "At least she has her mother. Most of the other children have no one.

"If they are Serbs, their parents may have fled to Serbia, if they are Albanian their mothers and fathers may be dead. Since the war, nobody comes to visit them. They call us mother and father, and each other brother and sister." Two elderly patients were eating with the youngsters. "Their own children have gone to Serbia," he said. "They want to treat these ones as if they were theirs."

The children, who speak a mixture of Serbian and Albanian among themselves, seem lively enough, despite the poor food and the lack of playthings - one boy who had found a piece of plastic wrap was being begged by the others for a chance to pop some of the bubbles. "It is hard to keep them stimulated," said Dr Musliu, "but we are doing what we can to teach them art and music as well as technical subjects."

The War Child charity delivers fresh fruit to the children each week and has provided a playground, but must now find winter clothing to enable more of them to play outside.

Apart from basics such as better food and washing facilities, Dr Musliu considers the greatest need, for adults as well as children at the institute, to be more professionally qualified staff. "I was the only doctor here until last month, when one more came, and I am still the only one trained in mental health," he said. "Before the war, 80 out of a staff of 110 were Serbs, and they are very difficult to replace. This hospital should have at least eight doctors, and ideally three or four specialists in psychiatry. We can't get people to work here because we can't find them accommodation or tell them when or if they will be paid."

Some help is being provided by the Norwegian Red Cross, but, for the moment, Stimlje Institute can only tick over. "We have people coming to the gates every day, begging for admission, but we can't improve conditions if we let more patients in," said the doctor. "When I came here 16 years ago we were able to look after 440 people, including 70 children. Now I have one child who could be discharged, but his family is from Vojvodina [at the other end of Serbia]. There is no way he can go home."

During the past two years in particular, the hospital must have seemed like a refuge from the insanity surrounding it. The demand for its services can only grow in the years to come, given the trauma suffered by so many people in Kosovo, but its future is as uncertain as anything else in a province still nominally part of Serbia but in practice drifting towards some kind of independent status under the UN. Dr Musliu, however, refuses to speculate on any of this. "This is a humanitarian institution," he says firmly. "All I can think about is the people under my care."

t Independent readers have donated pounds 32,000 to our War Child Christmas appeal so far, James Topham, the charity's head of communications, said yesterday. Referring to a letter commenting on the "dignity and courage" of the children of Rwanda, as described in the article by Mary Braid last Saturday, Mr Topham said he thought many people had been affected by the way the victims of war were presented as real individuals, and not just anonymous faces or "news items".

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