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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Even Children of War Can Be Kids at Center

Camp: Israeli group's activities help ease the pain for Kosovo youths, but for some there's still no place like home.

May 08, 1999|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRAZDA, Macedonia — Tucked away in Macedonia's most populous refugee camp, amid the despair and sadness, is a small corner of joy.

Part playground, part hip hangout, the Israeli-run youth center set up more than two weeks ago is the only place in the camp specifically set aside for children. It's also one of the few places where smiles abound. Kids are kids here, able to forget--for a moment--that they are refugees.

Small children shriek as they run through the center playing tag. Teens hang out--in groups, of course. The rebellious smoke. The bold flirt. There are two television sets showing cartoons, a basketball and a volleyball court, and even a loudspeaker that blares tinny pop songs throughout the day, the only source of music regularly heard in the camp.

Of course, the war is never far away. The Israelis brought 5 tons of paper with them, huge sheets of blank white space that the children cover with images throughout the day. Almost always, they paint their homes.

"It's what they miss most," said Jacob Bachur, head of the Israeli Council of Youth Movements, which operates the center.

On Sunday morning, the Israeli child care workers ripped out pages from a Peter Pan coloring book. They handed them out along with boxes of watercolors to hundreds of children waiting in a 200-yard-long line.

Behar Hadjari was coloring a picture showing the storybook characters Peter Pan and Wendy. The 11-year-old said he had left his village, Ferazai, more than two weeks ago after North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces bombed a nearby factory and Serbs burned the home of a neighbor.

"I like it a lot here," Behar said as he colored his picture on top of an olive-green 55-gallon oil drum. "We have school here, and we can learn and draw."

Near Behar, child care worker Eran Brautman was dancing the Macarena with a group of about 20 children. The 28-year-old Brautman said his only worry is having to go home. The center runs out of money at the end of next week. "We want to stay a minimum of three months, but it takes a lot of money to be here," said Brautman, an Israeli.

Brautman came in part because the plight of the refugees reminded him of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. He found nothing strange in a Jewish group helping mostly Muslim children. "We don't think anything about Serbs or Albanians or Muslims," Brautman said. "We just love the children."

Almost none of the activities in the center involve spoken words. The Israelis brought no translators. Except for two volunteers who speak Albanian and English, all communication takes place through pantomime.

The Israelis recently handed out fluorescent paint to some of the 2,000 children who come to the center on a daily basis. The kids coated the walls of army-green tents with paintings of houses being bombed. Some children painted the NATO symbol. Others painted "UCK," the Albanian initials for the Kosovo Liberation Army, the rebels fighting for Kosovo province's independence from Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia.

In one corner of the center, children played volleyball. Lindita Pacolli, 14, and her friend Albulena Sfarca, also 14, stood to one side and watched older boys pummel a soccer ball across the net.

In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, Lindita had a large house in one of the nicer suburbs. Now she lives in a tent. She's tired of the mud and the stench from the latrines.

The youth center is nice, she said, and gives her a chance to hang out with friends. But the thought of going home is never far away.

"We like this, but there's no place like our own house," Lindita said. "When I come here, it's kind of a relief and helpful. But I always think of Pristina."

In another corner of the center, 17-year-old Ferat Bajraktari smokes a cigarette from a pack of Pall Malls. He lost his family in the confusion when they fled from Kosovo more than two weeks ago, he said. He now lives in the camp with an aunt. The center provides something of a social life.

"It's OK. I have my friends here. And my schoolmates are here too," he said.

Standing in line to pick up a page from the Peter Pan coloring book is Mevlyde Haliti, 51, along with one of her children and two grandchildren.

For her, the center is all about rest. It gives her a break from looking after the children. And from worrying about the future.

"The camp is very hard on the kids and their hygiene" she said. "This place is so useful. We're so thankful for it."

To help support the Israeli-run youth center for refugee children in Brazda, Macedonia, please contact: Israel Council of Youth Movements, Noar Ha'oved Ve'halomed, Kibbutz Galuyot St., 120, Tel Aviv, 66877, Israel. Telephone: 011-972-54-719-370

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