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Young Refugees Learning To Cope

June 11, 1999

KUKES, Albania (AP) _ ``Repeat after me: A cat goes meow, a cow goes moo,″ the counselor instructs a circle of spirited refugee children. ``What does a dove say? Why do we love the doves?″

Because, she explains, they are birds of peace.

``Peace!″ the youngsters chorus with gusto _ hopeful, like their parents, that with a NATO-Yugoslav pact and Serb troop withdrawal they’ll soon return home, their anguish ended.

But social workers believe the refugees’ homecoming could prove as traumatic as their flight, and that children will have to fight a force that could blight their generation _ a hatred of their Serb neighbors.

``Here in the refugee camps the children are in peace,″ says Elvana Zhezha, a 24-year-old Albanian with the U.N. Children’s Fund. ``But when they go back and see their houses burned down, the animals they loved killed, they will feel again this big hate inside.″

So, through games, Zhezha sneaks in simple messages she hopes they’ll carry home, and tells stories about ordinary Serbs showing compassion during the Kosovo crisis.

Some say it’s too idealistic, premature and maybe even pointless, given the season of Serb terror preceded by centuries of conflict between Albanians and Serbs in the Balkans.

Although ethnic Albanians made up 90 percent of Kosovo’s prewar population of 2.1 million, their children experienced humiliation, sometimes brutality, and segregation. At school, they were not only relegated to separate classrooms but even to separate lavatories.

``After what happened in Kosovo, anti-Serb sentiment and hatred will increase,″ predicts Fahri Musliu, an Albanian journalist in the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade. ``Local Serbs, their neighbors, were the carriers of evil.″

Dr. Lynne Jones, a psychologist who has worked in the Balkans since 1992, says victims of violence need to see justice done before their psychological well-being can be restored. ``Forgiveness follows justice,″ she says. ``Then you can have reconciliation.″

One of 120 counselors among the refugees in Albania, Zhezha is under no illusion about the magnitude of her task. When she urges the children to express their feelings through poetry, songs and painting, the results are often graphic images of suffering, underscored by anger.

The drawings depict village houses being torched and farm animals slaughtered by Serb soldiers. Red is a dominant color. Fire and blood feature in poems, even of the very young.

For those in their teens and 20s, UNICEF has initiated councils at six Kukes refugee camps that help hundreds of participants forget personal tragedies by channeling their energy into immediate tasks _ like organizing sports and cultural events _ and preparing leaders to rebuild their homeland.

``I told them: `You are the keys to Kosovo’s future. Take this crisis as an opportunity to help the community. This way you can fight for Kosovo with your mind and energy, not guns,‴ says UNICEF’s Bertrand Bainvel.

Bainvel, who originated the idea, said the elected councils are apolitical but stress democratic participation, human rights and nonviolence.

Without addressing reconciliation with Serbs _ Bainvel believes it’s too early for that _ the youths discuss how conflicts are resolved and compromises reached within groups and in countries elsewhere in the world.

While an exodus of ethnic Serbs fearing retribution may occur, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo will remain neighbors _ hostile or reconciled _ with Serbs of the Yugoslav Federation to the north.

``There is little lynch mob mentality,″ says Jones, hopeful the returnees will not indulge in bloody revenge-taking. ``Rather than hatred, I’ve heard: `I don’t know how I will be able to live with Serbs again.′ I haven’t heard them say, ’I want to throw a grenade into my neighbor’s back yard.‴

Some of the children’s poems are infused with both terror of the Serbs and healing. Like one written by 14-year-old refugee Leonora Sylaj, who left a notebook full of poetry with Zhezha before she departed with her mother to another camp. Her father is missing.

``The mountain meadows were irrigated with blood,

So we couldn’t breathe in the fragrance of flowers...

Be patient, my people,

Be wise, even if you are prisoners.

A bright day will come,

A sun under which no shadows are cast.″

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