Youngest Refugees Lose Their Innocence
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 27, 1999; Page A35
CEGRANE, Macedonia – When Refiqe Aliu, 14, arrived at this refugee camp in early May, she carried a copper-colored bullet from a Yugoslav AK-47 rifle buried in her left leg. Doctors at the German military field hospital swiftly removed it. In the days after the operation, as she lay in bed, she held it between her thumb and forefinger, like a good luck charm.
Aliu needs some luck. Like thousands of other young victims of the war in Kosovo, she has endured far more than anyone her age should have to withstand.
She was shot by Serbian police as she and her relatives fled their mountain camp in northern Kosovo. She saw her cousin, Lavdim Aliu, 11, die in that hail of bullets. She crawled, alone, for an hour until her father found her and took her to local doctors. With her left foot paralyzed, her full recovery is uncertain.
She often thinks of what she has seen, especially her cousin's killing. "I'm always thinking about seeing his blood, seeing him shot," she said and burst into sobs.
The war in Kosovo is breaking children's bodies and wounding their hearts and minds. With the conflict entering its third month, humanitarian agencies are just beginning to help children deal with their emotional pain.
"Being shot as a child is a catastrophe, and being a refugee is a catastrophe. Seeing a relative die is a catastrophe. She is very affected," said Aliu's doctor, Lt. Col. Wolfgang Titius. "If she sees a uniform like mine, she starts crying, so I take off my jacket when I am with her and try to act like a normal human being."
A few days after he uttered those words, Aliu suffered another trauma: The German field hospital was disbanded and replaced by one run by a humanitarian agency. Titius was out of his patient's life, and Aliu had lost another friend.
Few of the estimated 60,000 children in the refugee camps of Macedonia are as bruised as Aliu. But many have similar stories of armed police at the door, orders to flee, long journeys with no food or water, violence and death.
When the police shot at him, Kushtrim Dervishi, 10, said he was "afraid, but not much. I'm used to it." He smiled as he said this and looked rather proud. Dervishi's father, Vesel, was shot and killed by a Yugoslav sniper in Kosovo six weeks ago, as Dervishi's younger brother, Enver, watched.
Even children who have not seen violence know of it. They sit in tents here as parents and relatives talk of massacres and snipers in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. When reporters ask refugees about Serb violence, the grown-ups always have a tale to tell, and there are always children in the front row of the crowd, listening to details of throat-cutting and rib-breaking.
The children are eager to tell their stories too. Sitting in a circle at the refugee camp, a group of boys ages 10 and older interrupt each other.
"I saw a dead body from the train [to the border], and a dog was eating it," said Alban Berisha, 11.
"I saw five people lying in the street in Pristina on our way out and they were dead," said Riad Avdiu, 10, who survived a harrowing train ride from the Kosovo capital to the Macedonian border with his family.
Now that they are here and safe, the family avoids talking about their ordeal. "We try not to," Avdiu said.
"You have many traumatized children here. I think children need to talk, to act it out and be guided with positive, creative activities," said Malfrid Anestad, of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who is working with UNICEF to set up schools for children in the camps.
UNICEF is bringing in a psychological team as part of an effort to counsel children. When Hillary Rodham Clinton was in Macedonia on May 14, the first lady announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development would contribute $1 million to fund community-based counseling and training for teachers and parents of war-affected children. Training is already underway under UNICEF auspices, though fewer have been trained than the hundreds needed. Relief organizations are setting up schools, theater programs, play groups and other outlets for children.
But school is being offered only to those between the ages of 7 and 14, and it cannot accommodate all of these children. Of the 2,500 primary-age children at the Brazda camp, for instance, only 400 attend school.
Children do have other outlets. At a children's center at the Brazda camp run by a coalition of Israeli youth movements, children tell their stories with pictures. They draw houses and flowers, helicopters and flames.
"They look forward to this. They spend a lot of time here," said Plator Grezda, a Kosovo Albanian volunteer at the center. "Before, they were just wandering around."
At another tent center, run by Save the Children, the preschool-age attendees clearly showed the effect of their troubles, said Hava Svirca, a teacher. When they first arrived, they refused to be separated from their mothers. They didn't want to share toys and they wouldn't hold hands with children they didn't know.
Story time made things a little easier. Story time in the refugee camps of Macedonia is when children describe their escape from Kosovo.
"They wanted to tell about leaving their homes over and over," Svirca said. "They talked about paramilitaries with masks, police who told them to lie down. Some of them had seen adults tortured. They wanted to speak, to share their stories with each other."
Svirca and her husband sometimes spend the night in the center, and children these days start showing up at 7 a.m. "to see if they can play," she said. When a new child comes and is afraid to leave his mother, the other children offer reassurance.
Aliu, for her part, could be evacuated to Germany, but she isn't sure she wants to go. Her 19-year-old brother is still hiding in Kosovo.
"I don't want to go even farther away," she said.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company