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Ethnic Discord : Children of Balkan Conflict Draw Harsh Lessons From War : They can't paint over their sorrow. So UNICEF helps them confront their pain through art.

June 01, 1993|TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZAGREB, Croatia — In horrifying nightmares, Antonija Pavicic, 4, relives the spring day when, she says, Serbian soldiers slit her father's throat as she and her mother looked on, helpless. Most nights, she wakes, screaming at the vision of his headless ghost, her body drenched in sweat, heart pounding.

It happened a little over a year ago in a small Croatian village, she says. Her family had just climbed out of their cellar to surrender--Antonija, her mother, father, grandfather and sister, now 3. But when they went outside, soldiers killed her father and grandfather on the spot.

Antonija is one of countless children trapped in the blood bath in what once was part of Yugoslavia. Children on all sides of the fighting have witnessed such unfathomable atrocities that experts say many may never recover from the emotional scars. They have seen family members butchered, playmates' limbs blown off, their mothers raped.

"People seem to think that because this is Europe, all the children were put safely to the side while the war went on," said Edith Simmons, a U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) spokeswoman in Zagreb. "But you're talking about thousands of children who have seen people slaughtered. We don't know what kind of psychological effects this will have on them in the future."

Last October, to reach out to traumatized children, UNICEF launched a psychological counseling program in cooperation with the Croatian government. The program now includes 50 schools in Croatia. The main goal is to treat children who suffer from war-related stress in hopes of helping them to one day lead functional lives.

But results of a recent UNICEF survey of 5,000 children in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, do not bode well: 51% said they had witnessed a killing--19% of these had seen more than one person die at a time; 39% reported losing one or more family members; 72% had seen their homes bombed; 81% feared that at some point during the war, they would be killed. (There are about 70,000 children living in Sarajevo and surrounding towns, according to UNICEF estimates.)

The magnitude of the problem is so overwhelming that many psychologists are at the breaking point. They feel burned out and helpless in the face of so many needy children.

"When I hear some of these stories, it's all I can do not to cry in front of the child," said Antonija Urli, a psychologist at Children's Hospital in Zagreb who counseled young Antonija. "Everyone is exhausted, working overtime, and still it is not enough."

According to Croatian government figures, there are about 160,000 school-age refugee children in the country, out of a total of 500,000 refugees who fled Serb-held areas in Bosnia and Croatia. So far, about 6,000 children have been tested to determine whether they suffer from emotional dysfunction due to the war.

Dozens of teachers, social workers and school counselors have undergone special training to help them identify children who exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Workshops have been conducted for parents to alert them to signs of abnormal childhood behavior.

Psychologists say some of the common symptoms of high stress in children include nightmares, anxiety, depression, loss of concentration, heart palpitations, headaches and stomachaches. Many children also suffer from guilt feelings because they survived while their acquaintances and loved ones perished. In severe cases, children have become withdrawn and even violent.

One of the main components of the UNICEF program is an art therapy course designed to help children confront war experiences and put them in perspective. Children are assigned themes like "memories" or "peace" and asked to draw what those concepts mean to them. A sampling of these drawings was on exhibit at the U.N. General Assembly Public Library in New York last month. The exhibition, "No War Anymore," included 190 photographs of children's drawings from around the world.

"The purpose of the drawings is for the child to be able to express difficult experiences without having to communicate verbally," said Rune Stuvland, a Norwegian psychologist working with children in Bosnia and Croatia. "Putting the event on paper is also a way of working through it and putting some distance between the past and present."

During a visit to a hospital in the Bosnian town of Tuzla earlier this month, Stuvland handed out paper and crayons to the young patients there. Some were survivors of the April 12 bombing of a school soccer field in the town of Srebrenica. There, witnesses later said, 36 people were killed; there were reports of decapitations.

Children describing the scene drew a garish collection of bloody body parts, flaming houses and tanks shooting fire. "The children remember the most shocking part of the event. For instance, the arm being blown off," Stuvland said. "What we are trying to do is to take these children back to these horrible experiences in a very safe environment where they can come to terms with them."

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