Loss of friends, family leaves emotional scars

Higher suicide rates for refugees who witness violence, psychologists say

April 24, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BRAZDA, Macedonia -- At a makeshift school in a refugee camp, it was 5-year-old Jeton Hasani's turn to tell his story of what happened in Kosovo.

With the teacher at his side, Jeton started to talk in a matter-of-fact tone.

"A grenade was thrown into our garden. Then my grandma was dead. My uncle, he's standing over there, was injured," Jeton said.

Then the meaning of his words seemed to hit him. His whole body tensed up, his cherubic face turned bright red and tears started to sprinkle from his eyes.

"Grandma, grandma, I want my grandma!" he cried.

The rest of the class, more than a dozen small children, sat quietly on a gray wool blanket watching the painful scene.

Losses such as Jeton's hardly make headlines amid the accounts of massacres and the systematic expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians from their homeland in recent weeks.

But the killings of countless beloved grandmothers and best friends during Serbian forces' sweep through Kosovo are leaving emotional and psychological scars that will outlast the war in the Yugoslav province.

Coping with tragedy

The people who have experienced these devastating personal tragedies are dealing with them in different ways.

Some are trying to exact revenge with their own hands.

Others are determined that once they return to Kosovo, no Serbs will share their land.

And others, who like Jeton are too small to think about making someone pay for their pain, have been so deeply traumatized that they may never be the same.

Jeton's grandmother, Arife Hasani, 57, was the one who cuddled with him while watching cartoons on television each day. And she was the one who baked the delicious cheese and spinach pies that are his favorite.

Now she's buried in the garden.

Hasani and her daughter, Fatmire Hasani, were up late March 25 preparing to follow the order of Serbian security forces to leave their home in Metrovica early the next morning.

The NATO bombings had begun the day before.

Fatmire Hasani, Jeton's aunt, was in the bathroom when she heard an explosion that knocked the lights out. In the darkness, she heard her mother's faint voice and found her lying in blood.

A piece of shrapnel had lodged into her neck. Soon she was in a coma, then dead.

The family wanted to keep the news from Jeton, so when he asked for his grandmother in the morning, they told him she was in the hospital. But he discovered her body and vomited from the shock.

For a week, Jeton couldn't stop crying. Since then, he talks about his grandmother all the time and sees her in his sleep.

Reliving the moment

So does Fatmire Hasani.

"I keep dreaming of the moment when I found her. And she says to me: `I'm not dead. I'm alive,' " said the 30-year-old teacher.

Besim Berisha, 21, was hiding in the hills near his home in the southern Kosovar village of Mirosala when he saw tanks approach his house.

"My grandfather came out to see what was happening," Berisha said. "I saw them stab him in the chest with a knife."

Death did not come as a surprise to 70-year-old Zejnel Berisha. He had said goodbye to his loved ones when they headed into the forest to hide from Serbian se- curity forces who had ordered them out.

"He didn't want to leave the house," said Besim Berisha. "He wanted to die in his own home."

`I don't have a heart'

Berisha said he had finished crying over his grandfather's death, and now he is determined to avenge it.

"I don't have a heart anymore," he said cooly.

Berisha wants to join the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), like numerous other refugees have, but the guerrilla force is not taking volunteers without weapons of their own. Although he has no experience, Berisha said that should not stand in his way: "I will learn to fight in two hours."

Fadil Dragaj, 42, can't fight, though he would love to.

Two days before NATO began its airstrikes, Dragaj was at a cafe near the popular restaurant he owns in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, when the cafe was attacked by Serbian security forces with automatic weapons and explosives.

Five bullets left wounds in Dragaj's arms. Shrapnel lodged in his back and pierced his lungs. Three of his ribs were broken. He now has no use of his right arm, and one finger has been amputated.

He is still bandaged and aching and breathes with pain. But his greater agony is that his best friend was killed in the attack.

"I have a trauma of hatred and anger and revenge," Dragaj said. "If all the people who have committed these crimes against my people are punished, my trauma will be cured. This would be my therapy."

Such stories fit the pattern experts see among refugees.

Immediate, enduring effects

For those who have witnessed and experienced such horrors, psychologists say, the effects are both immediate and enduring. Trauma initially manifests itself in illness and medical complaints. In the long run, suicide rates are far higher among traumatized refugee populations than among those who haven't been exposed to such violence.

"It's horrible, and it's excruciatingly traumatic," said Rona Fields, an Alexandria, Va., psychologist who has conducted extensive research work on traumatized refugee populations.

Refugees who have witnessed violence to loved ones, Fields noted, often see little difference between themselves and the victims.

"They identify as the victim and put together whatever experience they've had in the camp with the experience of the trauma they've just been exposed to," said Fields.

As a result, she added, the violence done to refugees is multiplied in its effect. "It's done to terrorize in many instances. And it has just that effect."

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