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Classes Teach Children Curiosity May Kill Them

THE PATH TO PEACE

Kosovo: Young refugees are taught how to avoid mines and unexploded bombs. Adults worry because some weapons look very similar to toys.

June 24, 1999|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STANKOVAC, Macedonia — As a teacher at one of the ethnic Albanian refugee camps here, Selim Sherifi has struggled to ply his trade in the face of stifling heat, emotional outbursts by traumatized children and a dearth of school supplies.

But those challenges seemed small compared to the lesson Sherifi found himself conveying to students Wednesday: to quit acting like children.

"Don't be curious about things you've never seen before," he warned. "Don't wander around the countryside. And play only where your parents say you can."

The unusual lesson is destined to become an integral part of the Kosovo school curriculum in coming years due to the tens of thousands of land mines, booby traps and unexploded bombs believed to be littering the war-scarred province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.

The explosives have replaced Yugoslav soldiers, sniper fire and shortages of food and housing as the greatest threat facing Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, relief workers say. Mines and unexploded bombs have killed or injured dozens of people already, and experts predict that it could take three to five years to clear away the danger. Children are at particular risk of harm due to their curious nature and because some bomb parts resemble toys.

"You can't imagine how difficult this is or how sorry this makes me feel," said Sherifi, 45, who is from the southern Kosovo town of Gnjilane. "Instead of teaching pupils about things that will be of importance to their lives, I'm in a situation that I have to teach them about land mines and weapons."

The tragedy was not lost on about three dozen children sitting behind neat rows of desks Wednesday at the Stankovac 1 refugee camp. They listened intently as Sherifi explained that once they return to Kosovo, playing with toys or wandering through fields could put them at risk of injury or death.

The session appeared to catch the attention of many of the third- and fourth-graders who filled Sherifi's classroom. But whether the message sinks in remains to be seen.

Student Mirlinda Ahmetti stood and recited some of the warnings that Sherifi had just fired at her. But moments later, the 11-year-old acknowledged that she didn't know whether she would remember the potentially lifesaving tips in her excitement to be back in Kosovo.

Added Lavdrim Shabani, 10, who was weeping after the lesson: "I feel so sad that there are all these things I can't do because of the Serbs."

"It's very difficult to teach these kids," Sherifi said. "They're so young, but they've seen everything and heard everything."

Relief workers acknowledge that teaching refugee children about the hidden dangers awaiting them in Kosovo is proving to be a tricky task.

"We're walking a fine line between scaring them and impressing upon them [that] they have to change the way they live," said Tehnaz J. Dastoor of UNICEF, which has launched a massive campaign to teach ethnic Albanians about the dangers of land mines. "They need to understand that the Kosovo they'll be returning to is a much different place than the one they left behind."

Dastoor and her colleagues at UNICEF have spent the better part of this week training dozens of ethnic Albanian teachers such as Sherifi about ways to avoid explosives so they can pass that knowledge on to students. The hope is that the teachers will continue the lessons once they return to Kosovo.

Complicating the situation, however, is the steady stream of ethnic Albanian refugees who continue to pour back into Kosovo each day, ignoring repeated warnings to wait to go home until the land mines and other dangers are removed.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 207,000 refugees have returned to Kosovo since NATO-led peacekeepers began moving into the province less than two weeks ago--a clear indication to relief workers that their once-captive audience is on the move.

Nor is logic on their side, they acknowledge.

"It's easy to tell a child, 'Don't go to the river because there might be land mines.' But what are they going to do for water?" said Eric M. Filippino, of the Geneva De-mining Center. "Obviously, there will be cases where they'll have to go against their better judgment."

The fact that NATO cluster bombs are believed to have sprayed thousands of "bomblets" over Kosovo is another cause for concern, according to Donald K. Steinberg, the U.S. special envoy for Global Humanitarian De-mining.

"The U.S. bomblets look like round, silver toys, while the British versions look like soda cans that have been painted orange," Steinberg said. "They're just the kind of things to interest curious kids."

Even the weather appeared to be working against relief workers on Wednesday. Teachers had planned to hold land mine awareness classes throughout the day at the camp, but those plans were halted after powerful winds knocked down 24 of the 27 tents used for classrooms.

"I'm so scared for the children," said Maalfrid Aanestad of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who spent the day trying to get workers to help her raise the tents so classes could resume. "I fear they're going to be involved in a lot of accidents."

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