BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- As the savage fighting between Serbs and Croats day by day reduces Yugoslavia to the ancient hatreds of its tribal past, it appears to be feeding the minds of children in a way that is poisoning the future, too.
The children in the besieged portions of Croatia are difficult to reach, observe and interview. But among the Serbian children -- those who live in Serbia and those who have fled with their families from their former Croatian homes -- the effects are plain, and child therapists say that the legacy of bitter personal feeling may be more profound from this fighting than from World War II.
Serbs and Croats then were attacked by forces from outside. Today, they attack each other. A war psychosis has entered most homes, and the children of Serbia, says child psychologist Zarko Korac of Belgrade University, are inevitably absorbing the feelings that surround them.
Television sets are switched to nationalistic war reports. Pictures flicker across the screens and into children's minds: dead and injured people, soldiers shooting, destroyed Serbian homes. In the background is a steady stream of anti-Croatian propaganda. Adults talk of little but war. Men ages 18 to 60 are being called up. Some are dying. People have become anxious, tense and aggressive. And all this flows to their children.
In a Belgrade kindergarten room, the paintings on display last week might have been those of children anywhere except that, of the rainbow of colors available, the main one chosen was black. And when a visitor asked one boy to write his name on his gloomy depiction of house and family, the child, wary as a small animal, hesitated. Then he jumped up and shouted to his class: "Don't tell your names to anyone. The Croatian police are going to come and kill us all because we're Serbs."
On another day, on the outskirts of this city, the police picked up a bedraggled group of children trying to hitchhike away from Belgrade. Unattended by adults, 8 to 10 years old, they were the children of Serbs who had fled their villages in Croatia, fearful of Croatian attacks on Serbian homes. Distressed by the chaos and strangeness of their new refugee lives, the children were trying to run away from Belgrade, back to the security they remembered as home.
When a Serbian reservist, the father of a 12-year-old girl, was killed in a Serbian attack on the Croatian town of Vukovar, the girl's teacher brought the whole class to his funeral here in a show of support for the girl.
But at a Belgrade secondary school, a 14-year-old boy who said he was against the war was the object of taunts. "You're a sissy; you're not a real Serb," said classmates who shunned him, playing war games among themselves. Some were equipped by their parents with the battle fatigues displayed in shop windows. Their ideal is "Captain Dragan," the Australian soldier of fortune who has returned to his Serbian birthplace to raise an army and become a hero on television and in the popular press.
The most visibly disturbed children, therapists say, are among the tens of thousands of Serbian refugees who have fled the fighting and their homes in Croatia, some first living through bombardments and losing fathers or uncles. They are prone to nightmares, erratic behavior and personality changes, particularly those who have gone to refugee camps or been taken in by strangers rather than relatives.
Dr. Svetlana Anagnosti, a 52-year-old psychiatrist who works at the Mladost elementary school here, spoke of Jovan, 12, a refugee from Croatia. Soldiers had taken his 5-year-old sister away to interrogate her while the two were playing in a field. She was returned safely, "but Jovan is under great stress because he feels he failed to protect his sister," Dr. Anagnosti said. He seems disoriented. He refuses to talk or stutters when he does.
Velibor, 10, witnessed a slaying. "I was playing with friends in the field. We saw a group of men in black leading a prisoner. We hid in the bushes. They killed the man with knives."
He cannot erase the memory.
Researchers noted that refugee children tend to make a great distinction between Serbs and Croats, reflecting their parents' attitudes. Croats are people with no heart; "they have instead the coldest of stones," said a girl from Belgrade.
Mr. Korac is most disturbed by the militarism and ethnic hatred being drummed into young minds. "Ours is a Homeric society in many ways," he said. "Stories are passed from generation to generation. The hatred of Serb for Croat, of Croat for Serb, the militarism and glorification of war heroes . . . is taking our society steps backward to the past, to a tribal level."
The children of this uncertainty and tribalism will carry its effects into the 21st century.