Piecing together young refugees' shattered minds

CHILDREN OF WAR APPEAL
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The Independent Online
JOANNA GIBBON

Irena Barisic, a social worker with the Croatian Red Cross, spends her weekdays trailing the lonely, mine-ridden areas of northern Krajina for vulnerable and abandoned children.

Most Serbs left in the summer when Croatian troops defeated rebel Serbs in the area. But about 6,000 elderly people remained, while new refugees are arriving from Bosnia and Serbia. About 30,000 people are estimated to be scratching a living in the area.

The Croatian Red Cross's social welfare programme, supported by the International Red Cross, has been running mobile units with food parcels into north Krajina for six weeks. The programme urgently needs more funds to pay for transport.

Recently, Ms Barisic found a young Serb woman living in a state of near siege with her two children and her elderly mother-in-law. Her husband, who was in the Serb army, had fled. When her 13-year-old daughter saw a UN soldier accompanying Ms Barisic, she wet her knickers with anxiety. "The family are still living in a state of war", Ms Barisic said.

"Although we are concentrating on the elderly, we are also concerned about the children," Ms Barisic said. "These girls must get back to school."

Another worry, when the weather allows greater movement in the spring time, is the danger of mines. An estimated 3 million are in the region. "Parents will be concentrating on rebuilding houses, and the children will not be supervised. It is very dangerous," said Sabina Slottke, the Red Cross social welfare co-ordinator.

This worry filters down to the children. Ms Barisic is aware of the need to support them. At weekends, in her free time, she visits a camp at Sisak, near Zagreb, where she worked before starting the new operation. She goes specifically to see the Travelling Snowflakes, a theatre group she created for refugee and displaced children.

"When we began working in the camp in 1993 we noticed that at least 40 of the 55 children had post-traumatic stress and were in need of expert help," Ms Barisic said.

The children were highly aggressive or totally withdrawn; they had eye ticks, wet their beds and did not want to go to schoolbecause they felt stigmatised as refugees. Some deeply traumatised children have succumbed to passive suicide syndrome, where they literally fade away and die.

Ms Barisic's team tried individual counselling but realised they could not cope. So the theatre group was developed. In two years, the Snowflakes have staged five plays at schools, festivals, other camps and retirement homes. The children have changed considerably. "They are more emotionally mature, have the strength to deal with negative situations and feel they belong to a community," Ms Barisic said.

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