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Yugoslavia: Kosovar Children Try To Recapture Normal Life In Camps

RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey finds that Kosovar children in refugee camps in Macedonia act as if they are on holiday. But their exuberance often hides deep traumas following a forced expulsion from their homeland.

Cegrane, Macedonia; 24 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In a bright blue tent in the Cegrane refugee camp, a group of young girls sing out passionately their support for the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) in its fight for an independent Kosovo.

With their families, the ethnic Albanian girls have been driven from their homeland, but they are trying now to recreate a hint of what they left behind. Twelve-year-old Fatbardha Varvara, the most enthusiastic of the girl singers, says that with her friends, she's almost able to forget all the traumas she has lived through in recent months.

"We are singing and playing together like we used to in Kosovo."

At first glance, Fatbardha's new home could be mistaken for a holiday camp, with its tents on a rolling hillside looking out over a breathtaking vista of snow-capped mountains and a lush green valley with small villages of red-roofed houses.

The holiday atmosphere is heightened by the scenes of cheerful children playing volleyball and football, their happy shouts filling the air.

The children may think they're on vacation, but their mothers know the grim reality -- Cegrane is a refugee camp for more than 30,000 Kosovars who have been expelled from their homes and homeland by Serbian forces.

Buge, a 30-year-old woman from Pristina (who didn't want her last name used) who arrived in Cegrane last week, watches her two small children playing. She says ruefully, "For us older ones it's very difficult, but for the children, they don't know anything, they are very happy here. They like the view, the air, they have friends here."

For children who have passed through traumas that most adults in other parts of the world cannot imagine, the quiet of the camp comes as a relief.

As a small girl, talking to our correspondent in Cegrane, said, "We survived the bullets, that's a good thing".

Xhyzide Hasaj, 44, a mother of eight, says her children dream only of going home, and that their biggest problem in the camp is boredom.

To relieve the boredom, the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, is running tent schools in the camps, and private charities run activity centers, like the one in Cegrane where Fatbardha and her friends were singing.

Gazmond Berisha is a 23-year-old civil engineering student who has become a volunteer teacher and play-group leader for children who line up to sing, draw and play for an hour at a time in groups of 40.

He points out that it is "not a real school" and that the children "have a real school in the camp." He said the aim is "to entertain the children and distract them from their traumas."

French psychologist Anne Blanquier, who is working with mothers and small children in another refugee camp, Stenkovec, says the children are suffering from more mental scars than they show.

"They look like children on holidays, but really it is not the case. Many, many children have big problems ... They are [malnourished], they are crying, they can be aggressive, they can sometimes lose contact with reality, they become [isolated], really, they have many, many problems."

Blanquier says both mothers and children are traumatized after their expulsion from Kosovo, and must be treated together to avoid problems in the future.

"Sometimes the mothers are depressed or they are traumatized, and the relation is not broken, but it's really damaged. For the future the children can lose their ... confidence, their self-assurance and in the future it can create problems for the child."

Because the children are so vulnerable, Blanquier says charities working in the camps put special emphasis on helping them cope with their problems, and helping them regain some semblance of a normal life.

The older children, even if they do not display any evidence of trauma, demonstrate an awareness of the Kosovars' political struggle at a young age. Sami Gurgurovu, a brown-eyed, freckle-faced 11-year-old, approached our correspondent in Cegrane to offer his opinion of the refugee camp.

"It is very good here in the camp. I am very happy here, but I hope I will go back to a free Kosovo."