Yugoslav terror leaves childhoods shattered Millions have seen kin, friends die

December 22, 1992|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The tiny, drawn face lighted up, remembering last Christmas -- the Christmas before his childhood ended.

"My daddy bought me a green bicycle with a bell. Can you take me back to find it and my daddy, too? I am going back, aren't I?"

Zoran Lekic, 7, then burst into tears, knowing there would be no going back. His mother and sister are dead -- raped and killed while he watched. His father has disappeared.

Now he lives at a refugee transit center where the staff is so overworked that it lacks time to help him deal with the trauma that keeps him awake most nights.

Zoran is not unusual. He epitomizes what childhood has become for hundreds of thousands of children in the former Yugoslavia: just a memory.

As Christmas approaches, UNICEF estimates that 1.4 million children in the former Yugoslavia are severely traumatized. More than half have seen dead and mutilated bodies, often those of close relatives or friends. More than two-thirds have thought at some point that they were about to die. All have lived with the terror of gunfire and artillery bombardments.

The adult war has shattered their world. Instead of Christmas or New Year's snow scenes, their paintings are now the stuff of nightmares. One 9-year-old furiously covered every inch of a large sheet of paper with pools of blood, skeletons, burning houses and soldiers with guns. None of it was supplied by his imagination.

The drawings of other children had no colors at all, just black. One depicted a single hooded figure of death with a long, bloody knife over his shoulder.

Social and aid workers from the United Nations who are dealing with these children say the damage is magnified by the nearness and duration of the conflict. Often it is neighbors and former friends torturing, killing and raping over weeks and months.

Even when children don't witness what is happening, they often hear screaming and the sound of gunfire as atrocities are committed in the kitchens, bathrooms or bedrooms of their homes. Their parents' terror communicates itself to them.

The immediate damage can be seen on countless small faces across Bosnia every day, such as that of a Muslim boy sitting on a bundle in a schoolyard in Travnik as he waits to be taken from the front line to a refugee camp.

His mother and grandmother wept uncontrollably as he sat frozen with fear. A neighbor explained that the boy had seen soldiers cut people's throats, including his father's.

But the longer-term consequences are harder to foresee. Studies carried out since World War II suggest that war-related trauma does not completely heal for two generations.

"It is difficult to hope that children who have experienced and witnessed, first-hand, such terror -- the slaughters, the shootings, their fathers beaten and humiliated and no longer able to protect and provide for them, their mothers abused and often raped -- will not want to take revenge, when old enough, for these intolerable sufferings," said U.N. worker Edith Simmons-Richner.

Hundreds of thousands of children already are plagued by nightmares, erratic behavior and personality changes, particularly those who have gone to refugee camps or been taken in by strangers rather than relatives.

An example is Alik, a 13-year-old refugee in Karlovac, Croatia. Trying not to cry, he described how soldiers burned his family's home and took them to a train:

"They took some men to kill. They chose my uncle and a neighbor and shot them with a machine gun. After that, the soldiers put the women in the front part of the train and the men at the back. As the train started, they disconnected the carriages and took the men to the camps. I cannot sleep anymore. I try to forget, but it does not work. Sometimes, I cannot feel anymore."

Crime among teen-agers has skyrocketed. In the first 10 months of this year, there were as many criminal cases involving teen-agers before the Belgrade courts as in the previous three years combined.

Dealing with war-related trauma among children is a recent specialty. Psychologists are divided on how to cope with it. Some counsel waiting for the end of the war.

Others, including Norwegian Magne Raundalan, who is associated with UNICEF, say it should be tackled immediately, before the trauma becomes too deeply rooted.

Mr. Raundalan advises putting schooling on hold while teachers and children re-create the stories of their lives, discuss their experiences and build new lives through drawings, poems and songs.

He cites the case of Jasmin in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka. After a grenade exploded in the family's garage, he lay beside his father, uncle and two cousins as they died. He remembered wanting to die, too. Through counseling, he has regained his will to go on, though he constantly relives his experiences and does not expect to live to be an adult.

But some people say it is not realistic to expect any such program soon.

"We have enough to do just coping with day-to-day life, let alone healing any psyches," said one Belgrade teacher. "The whole atmosphere is pervaded with nationalism, and that creates hatreds; it doesn't heal traumas.

"It's a grand scheme, but it isn't going to work, at least not yet. When adults can't solve the war among themselves, how can they deal with what that war is doing to their children?"

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