Focusing on children of war


Future: As chairman of Global Action Council of the International Youth Foundation, Martti Ahtisaari is trying to find ways to help Balkan youths.

April 26, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Martti Ahtisaari has inspected weapons dumps in Ireland and brokered peace in Kosovo. But now the former president of Finland faces what in some ways will be his most enduring challenge yet: how to help the young people of the Balkans build a future.

As chairman of the Global Action Council of the International Youth Foundation, Ahtisaari is trying to solve the problems of youth around the world. But the anger, hatred and deep-seated ethnic conflict in the Balkans have left young people - many of whom have lived through the violence - especially vulnerable, lacking education, homes and hope.

While the international community focuses on rebuilding bridges and roads devastated by war, Ahtisaari is concerned with rebuilding the future.

"You have to invest in human infrastructure, much more," he said on a recent trip to Baltimore to meet with the staff of the International Youth Foundation - just before United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed him to head an international investigation into the Israeli occupation of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.

As Finnish leaders go, Ahtisaari, 64, is a breed apart. He was the country's first president to win election, in 1994, by popular vote. He has largely made his reputation elsewhere. In all, he estimates he was out of Finland 208 days last year.

As a special ambassador in Namibia in the 1970s and 1980s, he supervised elections and oversaw other reforms for the United Nations. His work in the Balkans began in the early 1990s, culminating in brokering the Kosovo peace plan in 1999.

Since leaving the Finnish presidency in 2000, he has inspected the Irish Republican Army's arms cache as part of peace negotiations there, and recently helped draft a report on the human rights and political situation in Austria. He received the 2000 J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding.

His country of 5.2 million people has prospered in recent years, with help from Nokia, the cellular phone industry heavyweight. Under Ahtisaari, Finland joined the European Union. But Ahtisaari, born in Viipuri, a town taken over by the Russians when he was a toddler, says he and many Finns still identify with displaced people.

"I still remember what it is to live in other people's quarters," he says. "Perhaps I feel more sympathy. I can understand what they are going through."

And while his country's young people enjoy many advantages, Ahtisaari notes they, too, suffer from discontent. Alcohol consumption is high, and drug use is becoming a problem, he says.

A big threat

But for young people in the Balkans, conditions are much worse. In Kosovo, for example, experts fear that a stratospheric unemployment rate - estimates put it between 60 and 80 percent - poses the biggest threat to stability.

Two years ago, Ahtisaari established the Balkan Children and Youth Foundation, a group of nongovernmental organizations, business and political leaders, to tackle the issues.

At a summit to kick off the effort, Ahtisaari told participants: "Now is the time to help them adopt the values that will safeguard them against the divisive legacies of the past."

`Organized immigration'

Ahtisaari says he is cheered by results of a poll taken by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which found unusual optimism among Kosovars.

Two-thirds of those surveyed thought the country was going in the right direction. But an even higher number worry about the lack of jobs.

The answer, Ahtisaari says, may lie in building a system of "organized immigration" throughout Europe to take the youth of the Balkans to jobs elsewhere.

The idea, which he hopes to bring to European Union members this summer, may well be controversial, he admits. Critics might fear that such a policy will drain the region of its greatest assets just as redevelopment gets underway. But the work force in other European countries is aging, and will need an infusion of 10 million workers as soon as 2020, he says.

"In the end [it might] be better for everybody," Ahtisaari says.

Meanwhile, IYF, the Open Society Institute and the Balkan Children and Youth Foundation have been working with the World University Service of Bosnia and Herzegovina to offer job training and computer courses for older students about to enter the work force.

In the Macedonian capital of Skopje, IYF supports a Children's Creative Centre that uses lessons in painting to computers to unite children of different ethnic backgrounds.

`Never had ... hope'

The Balkan Children and Youth Foundation has been working in particular to promote understanding of Roma youths, also known as gypsies.

The Roma population has been a target of enmity from Serbians and Albanians, and has long faced ostracization throughout the region. Roma girls often are segregated into their own schools, and frequently marry at 13.

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