Related topics

Kosovo Children Show Trauma of War

May 5, 1999

KUKES, Albania (AP) _ Amid the din and dust of a refugee camp, 9-year-old Bajram Blaca stood ramrod straight in a circle of children and recited a poem.

``A man was killed,″ began the boy with short, sandy hair. ``He said to his mother, `Mother, I am dying now, but I leave my children and my wife to you. Take care of them.‴

Bajram sat down quickly as the crowd applauded. Another child followed with a song or tale about death, or Serb attackers, or perhaps a Kosovo Albanian hero.

Day after day, in the camps housing families torn from their homes in Kosovo, social workers encourage refugee children to express their hopes and fears through songs and poems, drawings and games, in an effort to begin healing the psychological trauma of war.

It’s part of what the U.N. Children’s Fund spokeswoman, Penelope Lewis, called a child’s basic right _ to get psychological help in time of war or catastrophe.

``Everyone agrees that the psychological wounds and the trauma are up there among the significant problems″ of war, she said, standing near Bajram and dozens of other children who gave their brief performances Wednesday. ``UNICEF pushes it as a must, up there with water and food and shelter.″

It wasn’t always that way. A decade ago, relief agencies concentrated on the material aspects of an emergency _ providing the plastic sheeting and tents for temporary shelters, the food and water for sustenance. Sending trained social workers to minister to psychological wounds was a much lower priority.

Lewis said the U.N. Summit on Children in 1990 helped change the thinking by asserting the right of children in war to proper care _ both physical and psychological.

On Wednesday, four UNICEF social workers, on their first day in the Kukes area, gathered dozens of children in a field in the middle of a crowded refugee camp run by relief agencies and soldiers of the United Arab Emirates. The first step was the circle: Children took turns stepping into the middle to say or sing whatever they wanted.

``The idea is that before you move into normal childlike activities, you have to allow them to express themselves,″ Lewis said.

Most seemed more than willing.

Rail-thin, 8-year-old Visar Tafay stood with his hands at his side, singing a well-known song of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the camouflage-clad guerrilla fighters considered heroes for combating the Serbs. Other children sang along or mouthed the words, and everyone applauded his rendition.

Another boy sang about Adem Jashari, a KLA fighter killed last year and now immortalized in oral legend. ``Don’t touch my Drenica, because Adem Jashari lives,″ he concluded, again to applause.

Then Valbona Bytyqi, a round-faced 14-year-old in a blue coat, brown tights and pink sandals without socks, stepped in and began speaking loudly. Tears ran down her cheeks and she stepped out again, head bowed.

Social worker Elvana Zhezha immediately walked over to her and, putting her arm around the girl’s shoulders, drew her away from the others. They talked for several minutes, with Zhezha hugging the child repeatedly, kissing her head. A little while later, at Zhezha’s urging, Valbona re-entered the circle and repeated her story, this time speaking in a strong, clear voice, looking straight ahead.

She spoke about Serb forces separating men from women, ``killing people for nothing.″ There were no tears this time.

``She just wanted to talk,″ Zhezha said afterward. ``She asked if I would come talk to her tomorrow. I told her we’d be here every day.″

Update hourly