Young refugees learn to ease psychic pain

At refugee camps, they use art, songs, poetry to assuage anger, sorrow

War In Yugoslavia

May 09, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TIRANA, Albania -- Images of blood, pillage, fire and death haunt the hundreds of thousands of children who have fled Kosovo.

Some have fallen mute. Some cling to their mothers. Most show a natural human resilience, playing soccer in the dusty refugee camps, tumbling among the army tents, skipping rope to age-old rhymes.

"But every child here has been through a traumatic experience," said Penelope Lewis, who works for UNICEF. "A lot of children have shattered lives, and it's going to be very difficult to put the pieces together again."

As a beginning step -- what Lewis calls "first-aid intervention" -- UNICEF is organizing children's activity sessions at every camp. Those who take part are encouraged to paint pictures, compose and recite their poetry, sing favorite songs.

The Kosovar children draw pictures of burning houses and stacks of bodies, of tanks and jet bombers. They sing songs of heroism and write poems that have nothing to do with a child's delights and everything to do with revenge and blood.

Thus, when Jetmira Bytyqi, an 11-year-old at a camp built around a drained swimming pool in Tirana, was called upon to recite the other day, she chose a poem she had recently written with her older sister.

She clenched her fists, and punched the air for effect, while other children sat around her admiringly in a tent adorned with party balloons.

"Heroes of Drenica who fired the first shot,

"The titans clashed with the Serbs,

"Like an eagle that climbs down from the mountains

"With guns in their hands and grenades in their belts,

"Around their belts hung many bullets,

"For Kosovo they are ready to die."

Then, addressing the Serbs who forced them from their homes, and invoking a legendary Albanian hero, she said:

"Stop, you ancient witch,

"Here fight the grandsons of Kastriot,

"Because Kosovo is not without a lord,

"And it will serve you a table of tears and blood."

The children burst into applause when Jetmira finished, then they stood and sang a stirring song about Adem Jashari, a Kosovar Albanian who was killed by the Serbs in March 1998.

One line is: "The brave all die."

Counselors at these camp sessions encourage the children to express themselves -- and they all turn to such themes, at least at first, not to stoke bloodthirsty hatred of the Serbs but to find an outlet for their anger and sorrow.

"It is easier to express pain or trauma through a picture, through a poem, through a song," Lewis said.

In villages throughout Kosovo, children lived for six to 12 months in terror of the police. The object of their fear was among them and even now is not far away. That's not something that counseling can help.

Now, stripped of their possessions, burned out of their homes, their fathers and brothers often missing or dead, they live in rows of tents with little to do and a future that looks blank at best.

"The best mental health intervention is the possibility of return and seeing justice done," said Dr. Lynne Jones, a psychiatrist working in Kukes, Albania, with a group called Child Advocacy.

That, for now, isn't happening, although investigators from the International War Crimes Tribunal have fanned out among the camps here and in Macedonia to collect evidence.

The refugees are stricken with grief, anger, fear and sadness, said Jones, and that's a natural and healthy response to the crimes perpetrated against them.

Still, UNICEF counselors hope to draw the children out and, as Lewis said, steer them back toward more childlike activities.

Jetmira's cousin, Urim Bytyqi, has been a counselor at the swimming pool camp for just over a month, holding sessions with 25 to 30 children twice a day, every day. Any child is welcome to attend; no one is forced to. He can refer children who show signs of psychotic behavior -- typically fewer than 10 percent, in Jones' view -- for psychiatric attention.

In a camp of 5,000 people, Bytyqi said, about 450 children regularly attend the sessions. He, too, saw the drawings of body parts, smashed houses and massacres.

"But when they started to feel the security of the camp," he said, "they began to draw birds, nature, the houses they want in the future instead of the houses that were destroyed in the past."

For many refugees, hope won't come so easily. Thousands of Kosovar men were separated from their families; many might be dead. A smaller number were killed in front of their wives, children, parents, who then were forced to flee, abandoning the bodies where they lay.

This, said Jones, who worked with refugees in Kosovo for a year before leaving in March, has prevented the families from handling their grief in traditional ways. The body is not cared for and shown respect. Fellow villagers do not come by to visit.

The surviving adults have little to do but sit in hot, darkened tents, overcome by grief. UNICEF -- the United Nations children's fund -- recognized that this only compounds the disruption in the children's lives.

"One fragile person in a family can have a big effect," Jones said.

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