Children of war in Yugoslavia

Children in a camp for displaced persons in Croatia (© Eric Beauchemin)

Eric Beauchemin visits Croatia to investigate how the war in the former Yugoslavia is affecting the most vulnerable of all victims: children. In Croatia alone, more than 330,000 children had to flee their homes. The country is providing refuge to many other displaced persons, mainly from Bosnia.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: August 24, 1994


Radio Netherlands the Dutch International Service presents the children of war. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Voices from the former Yugoslavia. These children from a school in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, were singing for other less fortunate kids, kids who have lost a father or a mother in the war. The war in the former Yugoslavia has affected everyone, including children. It’s easy to forget that these are just kids. Kids, like we all once used to be, kids, it could be yours for mine. In Croatia alone, 330,000 children have had to flee the war. One out of every five children in the capital Zagreb is a refugee from neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina or a displaced person from somewhere else in Croatia. The war kids are spread out across the country, living in camps, or with friends or relatives in small houses or apartments, sometimes sharing living quarters with over 50 people. To discover how the war has affected children. I headed east to the small village of Dobratz (sp?). That’s about an hour out of Zagreb. Like many of the surrounding crowed villages, it was largely destroyed by Serb forces, and many of the inhabitants of Dobratz fled. Now, a year later, some are beginning to return. Most of the village is still in ruins. The elementary school is riddled with bullet holes. In front of the school, I found Ivana Shandrac (sp?), a nine-year-old Croat. Ivana doesn’t understand why the war broke out, and why she had to leave her home. But then neither does her mother. Evka Shandrac.

I can know what’s happened here. And the child can’t know. Q: But when she sees this, doesn’t she asked questions? I mean, the child. Yes, she asks, what is it and why is it, so she can’t understand. Q: And what does the mother say? And I can’t understand too she said. Q: Are they afraid? Yes. Yes. She’s alone in this house with two children and during the night she can hear shooting on the hills. Q: Still? Still now, yes. Yes. And she’s afraid but she’s here. It’s difficult to be in another places without open house without family and it is a long time to be out from house the one year. Q: Does she feel hatred towards the Serbs? I don’t know to hate. I don’t know to hate. Q: Is she optimistic about the future for her children? It is difficult to say. I am optimist. But I must be optimist.

A little further down the road to the east, not far from Bosnia, lies the town of Lipik, which was damaged even more heavily by Serb forces than Dubrovac, though at the time, that seemed impossible. There was an orphanage in Lipik before the war, and when the fighting broke out, the orphanage’s 80 kids – from 3 to 16 years old – had to take refuge in a cellar for seven days until they could be evacuated.

Workers are beginning to remove the debris, the dolls, the children’s clothes. The orphanage’s directors hope the kids will be able to come back as early as next spring. In a sense, these kids have had to bear a double burden. They lost their parents before the war. And now they like 2 million other people from the former Yugoslavia have become refugees or displaced people. But they’ve been lucky too because British soldiers in the United Nations peacekeeping force have taken an interest in them. And they’ll soon be taking the kids from the coast where they’re now staying to visit their home, as I heard from Dr. Martsa Dopic, the school director in Lipik.

Children wait with excitement next Saturday because the first time then they saw their home, their only home they wrote a letter, everything about the wanted to see in Lipik. And we said to them, in the first moment, you got a shock because when you see your home, you’ll be very sad. But we promised you that you’ll come back probably in March next year because before Christmas, we start with rebuilt. Q: All these children Croats? No, children’s is many nationality Serbs, Muslim, Italians, Gypsy Hungaria they live together they make friendship between them. It’s children. They never think about who is who. They’re children. We learn them about love, about friendship, about helping each other. Nobody of us never said to children hate him because him Serbs, he’s Muslim, he’s Croatian. No. We said to them, love him, help him. They knew who his enemy. But not, from children shelling their home shelling people, no children.

The children in Lipik and other towns in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been scarred by the war. And they’re trying to regain some sense of normality. But the violence they’ve experienced works its way deeply into their consciousness. The principal of the Lipik school told me for instance, the children in art class have found a new use for cereal boxes.

Before war, children doing many animals dogs. But now children doing house because here everything is destroyed, and children like a new house.

Three hours further down the road to the east near the city of Osijek is one of the five camps which the Croatian government has officially open for refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for the displaced people from Croatia itself. The camp of Gascinci is home to 2500 people, including Vladimir Matis, who’s 13. For five months now Gascinci has been his home but he originally came from the Bosnian village of Osijek, a place he and the rest of his Croat family had to flee when the chetniks, Serb militiamen, arrived.

The chetniks has come. We have just you no gun. So we must go. There were very many tanks. Q: Did everyone in the village leave? Yeah, everyone, but later old people stayed there.  Q: So just the young people and the woman left. Yeah. Q: And you came with here with your two brothers and your mother. Now I come here for one sisters and one brothers and mother. Q: And your father? My father is call me yesterday, if he drive a truck for Croatian army. Q: We’re in practically in the middle of nowhere here. It’s cold it’s windy. And there are tense what’s it like living here? It’s good, you know, for people is living in house, in bungalow. But it’s tents, it’s very hard. Q: Is it cold there? Yeah, it’s very cold. Q: Is there any heating at all? In bungalow sometimes. You know. In tents, it’s very cold, you know. Q: Do you live in a tent or in a bungalow? No, I live in in house. Q: So you’re fortunate You’re lucky. Yeah. But you must always you know have a fire. It’s very cold, you know. Q: What do you do all day? Walk, play, you know, eat. It’s very good food here. We not have work. Q: Do you go to school? No, here is not school. Q: Are you happy to be here? Yeah, but I’m not doing school you know. Q: Do you understand what this whole war is about? Um, I’m a small boy you know. Big people is must tell everything is once Bosnia you know, all Bosnia country. Everything. The ones are be Serbia you know, in both English, just Serbia, big Serbia. We not want. I want to stay you know Bosnia Herzegovina. Q: Do you remember the things that you saw when you were there? Yeah. Q: Do you have nightmares? No, I’m not have. I’m lucky. Q: You’re lucky. A lot of children have nightmares. Yes, small children. It’s a little children. Q: Do you talk about the war with your friends here? No. I must forget everything. I know want. Q: You don’t want to think about it. Yeah. I want to be in my home. Q: It doesn’t look like you’re gonna be able to go back to your home very soon. Oh, maybe maybe for Christmas, some people is tell me, you know, in Croatian army. For Christmas, for December, for three or four months. I don’t know. Q: But you hope? Yeah. 

Like all the refugee camps in Croatia, Gascinsi see depends on aid from foreign relief organisations, such as the Dutch Red Cross. The foreign volunteers do their best to alleviate the suffering, and to help the refugees and displaced people get through the winter, as I heard from Cliff frames, a Croat-American.

In this camp, I don’t think there is a great danger. As you can see, I say outside this building bungalows for these people to live in. And among those, each bungalow will have a wood stove. And so as long as the wood supply can remain in motion, then these people won’t freeze. But there is a problem getting wood. Q: We’re in a bungalow right now. There are six beds. Are there actually six people or are there more than that living here? Eight people here. Q: So people have to sleep on the floor. Right? Well, it’s partially my fault, because they invited me to come live here. I was in a tent, and they had mercy on me. And they invited me and so someone gave up their bed so I can have it which is right in the spirit of these people. For instance, when I first arrived in the camp, I was walking around one night with one small boy from the camp. And I had just mentioned very casually that I was feeling kind of hungry. He was like, Oh, just wait a minute. And he ran into his tent. And he came out with three chunks of bread and I can have meat paste for me. And I was like I came over here to give these people and now here at this point, given me meat paste and bread. And I thought that was really, really a good example of like, how good these people are and how little they deserve what they’ve gotten. Q: Is the campaign specifically to meet their most basic needs. And that’s it. This camp is actually one of the best camps in Croatia. It’s sort of meets their basic needs and sometimes a little more. In every week or two, they get chocolate and stuff, which is not a basic need. It’s a luxury. But they’re getting that they have hot water here they have, like it’s a nice, nice looking beds. So there’s basic needs being met. And just now maybe just a step above. Q: What are the people do during the day? I mean, he was saying that he plays a lot and he eats and sleeps and that’s about it. But what else is there to do? The nature they try to keep themselves busy anyway, they can I mean, they have to so they don’t lose their minds. They go around collecting wood, I mean, because it’s not always enough wood available from the storehouse. So thy people go off into the woods and cut wood. But for example, these people, these people came from farms in Bosnia, they worked from six o’clock in the morning to five o’clock at night working on the farm. They’re not used to sitting around doing nothing all day. You can see they knit, they, and they just take walks, they go collect water or wood and just to keep themselves moving. Because once they sit down and start thinking about their situation, that’s when it becomes dangerous. It’s psychologically dangerous. I mean, they start dreading their existence and start losing hope that there will be an end to this. And I feel it myself. As long as I keep moving here, I can keep my hope up. But once I sit down and start meditating on the situation, and what’s going to happen I, I could cry, you know. So it’s just it’s a matter of finding strength just to march forward. And whether that march takes you to the woods where you have to collect wood, that’s what you have to do. Q: What’s the general atmosphere like? Is it? Is there hope? Or is it quite pessimistic? Basically, it’s pessimistic because they’re still sitting here, and it looks like we’re going to be sitting here all winter. Q: What’s the most difficult thing for the refugees living here? Is it that uncertainty? Is the uncertainty? Will I ever have a normal life again? It’s the big question. I mean, will he be able to go back to work on his farm machine and so he talks about the old days when he worked on his farm, how great it was, and then he sits there, twiddling his thumbs all day. And it’s that that’s the most difficult part, the uncertainty, not knowing not knowing what’s gonna happen to you, and where you’re gonna be in 10 years. Are you still gonna be a refugee in 10 years?

Questions that all the refugees I met are asking themselves. The people in Gascinsi camp are relatively fortunate. They’re getting enough to eat, and none of them should die from the winter cold. The situation of refugees in other camps is bleaker. international organisations say hundreds of thousands could die this winter because of the cold. Some of the people at greatest risk are in the camp of Spansko on the outskirts of Zagreb.

This lady’s name is Joshonina Jasha (sp?). She’s from Jajce (sp?). She’s got three small children and her husband has been wounded, and he is in hospital. He lost one side of the lungs. Actually, he’s losing the other side, as well and most probably will not survive for very long.

There are about 500 Bosnians in this camp spread out over five barracks. Some are Muslim, some Croat. Each family has a room that’s about four by three metres and Joshonina Jasha’s room has four beds. It’s located in the middle of a hall so dark that you can’t even see the numbers on the doors. There are 12 toilets for all 500 people and only two showers. Hot water is non-existent.

She came on the second of July from Jajce but I said which was already under attack. She was for a while in some other barracks. But now for four months she’s having this room here. They do get food and she’s otherwise alright. But the heating is a great problem because they’ve got as you can see a very small place which is actually the heater is not working. She hopes that she could burn those few branches that she has put there. When she pass the children when she washes their hair. And for the rest they will have to be in cold. Neither can she cook or heat up anything because one-hour electricity that she had has burned out and this is the case for more or less like this in the hall of those barracks. Food, hot food today have been starting to deliver just about a month ago. Until then, they have been living mostly on ?. months ago, they started to have once per day now they did three times. Q: I’m just looking at her and she looks so tired and so exhausted and so worn out. She’s worried about future because she said though men who are capable to work and so on, they can sort of turn their life and do something else. But her husband is dying. She has got three small children. And she has no cannot possibly go back to Jajce. So she has actually a very bleak look at the future. I want to tell you at this moment that her children are heavily disturbed. I mean, all three of them are wetting themselves. Till now by night. Now it is happening by day as well. They need desperately psychological help. Q: And they’re not getting it. Not yet. But I mean, she is in a way lucky because my humanitarian organisation is looking after her, and we’ll see that the children see psychologists and so on. But it everything takes time because everything is involved. Of course, with money unlucky. Q: What do these people do all day? Outside, they look like they’re roaming around. The kids are playing a bit, but there’s not very much to do is there? That’s right. And however poor those barracks look, you can notice that they are scrupulously clean, because women have nothing else to do but to try to keep some sort of appearances of normality by cleaning and polishing it over and over and over again. Right, they have nothing to do. We are trying to organise them into the groups for knitting and sewing. Now if we have wool and knitting needles or some machines and material, we could organise them into looking after themselves as far as the clothes for their children are concerned and even make a penny. But of course, again, it is up to the humanitarian help. My only wish is that the war stops and that hopefully we can return back to our homes and perhaps pick up the pieces and start to live as we used to. I mean, normality should return and what the world can do it is to make sure that the war stops. It is our greatest wish.

But even if the world were to stop tomorrow, the lives of millions have been irreversibly altered. Horrific memories will haunt these people, including the young, including Georgitsa Roush, a 15-year-old. She comes from Vukovar, a town in eastern Croatia, which was under siege by Serb militiamen for four and a half months. Georgitsa left on the very last convoy that was allowed out of Vukovar to Croatia. And she took along with her her diary, full of thoughts and stories and poems about life under siege.

Procession of people, one after another. The coffin is wooden and strong. Leading the file, a very small priest singing a prayer holding a cross. Curious children a darting around. Grown men furtively wiping a tear. A woman fell lamenting a grief. God gave and God took away. And coffin is tiny in front of the crowd, carried on shoulders of two handsome youths covered with flowers, fascinated by death to rest forever. I am on my way.

She says they did not believe that they will have to leave Vukovar. They always thought that this will stop almost next day or next week. So she wanted to just to remember everything that was going on. So this is why she wrote a diary. And she wrote it all through the siege until she came to Zagreb. I don’t know if she’s writing still. Q: Is she? No, she does not. Q: Did her feelings and emotions change throughout the siege in the poems and the things that she wrote in the diary. From beginning she was very much afraid. She couldn’t understand that suddenly she cannot get out of the cellar. And then later, she says she’s afraid that it became normal. Q: What was it like? It wasn’t nice. She finds it very difficult to describe. The best description would be that she felt as if she’s not really living. It as if she’s going to wake up from this nightmare any moment. Everything looked so extremely unreal. Q: What did she do during that time? She said she was with a friend. So they together, they were writing a diary. They were writing lots of stories and lots of poems. She said they played cards that talked. Her stories were mostly about love. Since I read them all I can tell you they are sort of idealising the first love and young people in love and so on. I mean, of course, she’s a teenager, and her ideas and problems were like most of the healthy teenagers. Q: Does she feel a bit like Anne Frank. Yes, she does. She feels a little bit like that. But when she started, of course, she did not intend anything like this because she was waiting every week or every day that this is going to be over. On the end, it happened that her testimony is also worth a lot, you know, like Anna Frank’s was. Well, she said she first had a inclining that it might be worth something when they left Vukovar. Before they came to Zagreb, they stopped in a city of Bjelovar, and she had a young man there who read it. And he said, I think it is a very worthwhile testimony. And you should really keep it. Q: Does she still talk about it a lot about it, about what happened? There are psychologists, child psychologist who are working in this camp. So she talks to them a lot about experiences. And, of course, with friends. They go over and over and over those things. She feels it’s going to be a handicap for the future because she lived through a lot of very, very ugly and very, very difficult things. So she feels that she’s going to live with it in the future that you know, this is something very difficult burden that she has to carry the rest of her life. I think she’s still young to realise the enrichment that suffering can give. For the moment she feels suffering and that’s it full stop. Q: Is there anger? Nice. No, no, she’s not very angry anymore. Q: Why does she feel then? Well, she said of course she doesn’t feel anything good towards enemy but she said I cannot hate the nation. I cannot hate Serbians because there are Serbians. If at days anybody decent and proper towards me and towards people, I’m absolutely ready to forget and forgive.

But to forgive and forget the refugees, the children must first begin to try and come to terms with the traumas and tell their tales. The children of the war in the Balkans, like unfortunately most children in war, haven’t been spared atrocities. Mirima is a Bosnian Muslim, a teenager who now passes the days in a large room, which he shares with her mother, brother and sisters and grandmother. Three months ago, her father along with many of the men in her village was murdered.

They have been already on their way out of the village. And they have been staying in a certain house when these chetniks, those Serbians, came that asks the father, how many children has he got he only say that he has got those figures. He didn’t dare to speak that he has got a son as well, because he was afraid that they might pick the son, especially to kill him because he’s a boy. Now they were ordered to lie down flat on the floor while they have taken men and took them towards Jamia where they started killing. So a lot of people were killed in the mosque Jamia is mosque. They have been lots of people killed. And woman came to tell them that between the shot was also their father.

She says while they were in the village, they had to lie down flat on the floor women. Men they were taken after they have gone and the women went out they found that from every single house there were some men killed.

Mirima sobbed uncontrollably at times so she recounted the horrors that destroyed her life as a teenager three months ago. Children like Mirima Georgitsa, Branimir, and the others who got caught up in the vicious war in the Balkans, they all suffer from various degrees of post traumatic stress disorder. Several humanitarian organisations, including the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF, have set up projects to help the children cope with their war traumas. The kids and teenagers are encouraged to talk about their experiences, and some get counselling. But even the adults and psychologists treating these children are overwhelmed by the brutality of this war. They cannot offer these kids what they need most: peace and stability. The fact that many are living in camps in the cold only complicates the healing process, according to Dr. Vesna Vidovich, a child psychiatrist at Zagreb University Hospital.

The basic problem with the camps is that people after a while, become passive and bitter about everything, or they’re trying to achieve is to help them to restructure their lives to do something for themselves because we have seen that adults and children all suffer from some sort of regression. At one point, they wouldn’t even do some basic things that they would do at home quite normally. Q: I was in a couple of the camps and the situation is pretty hopeless. And the future is pretty hopeless. It’s pretty bleak. How do you go ahead and motivate them? We have realised that there’s no hope, unfortunately. And I have the feeling that even the people in refugee camps have reached the same conclusion too. It’s very sad and they say from time to time, we have everything. Even psychologists are coming but we can’t go home.

Relief organisations try to inject some joy into the lives of the victims, including the kids. The group mothers for peace, Croatia, for instance, organised a special programme for children from Vukovar. Visna Milas is one of the mothers.

 We had a programme last summer after Vukovar was completely, totally physically destroyed. There were quite a few teenagers coming out of Vukovar. And those boys and girls were considered as having no problems because they’re 14, 15, 16yearolds. Unfortunately, those kids are the ones with the greatest problems. So, what we tried to find was to find a sponsor in the West to pay for them a summer vacation after the school ends. And they went to the coast. So, we had quite a few groups of children going to the coast and we were intermediaries. We try to help them to forget they did not forget that they had three weeks makes good time. We want to help to contribute to something that they lost. We cannot substitute it, but we can help them to live through the tragedy.

Blanca Segovic, who served as my interpreter earlier, has spoken to many, many children. She’s one of the people behind the organisation, Help the Children in Croatia.

The saddest thing with a child is when he says, I don’t think I will ever grow up. And I don’t care if I do because there’s nothing nice on this world. People are bad. I’m not looking forward to becoming a man. You have to put sunshine back into their life you have to make them believe that the good will. There is hope. And for them, there is future. We have to show them that we shall overcome those difficulties and there is beauty in the future for all of us. It is very difficult, but it is necessary. We can’t leave children to feel hopeless. They are our future. And if they don’t believe in future, then there is no hope for us.

“The Children of War” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.