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Unicef study - Yugoslav children traumatised by war

September 5, 1999

FEATURE - Yugoslav children traumatised by war, fear future Sep 04, 1999 Eastern

By Ljiljana Cvekic

BELGRADE, Sept 5 (Reuters) - For nine-year-old Igor, war is a time when people sleep in bomb shelters, are afraid, and listen to the news all the time. Peace is when he can watch television and sleep in pyjamas in his own bed.

Stefan, 11, said nearly three months of NATO bombing had taught him never to relax, because anything can happen. "And I've learned to be afraid."

For 11-year-old Aleksandar, "civilians are ordinary people who work in the army and police but dress as ordinary people."

According to a study prepared by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Yugoslav children have been severely traumatised by the death and destruction caused by the bombs, the sounds of air raid sirens, planes and explosions, and the disruption caused by nights spent in air raid shelters.

It showed the air strikes created a high degree of fear, confusion, depression, despair and apathy among both children and parents, as well as a deep-rooted fear of the future.

"The future is a lack of fuel and electricity," said five-year-old Nevena, while many other children said they did not even want to think of the future.

The research was carried out by psychologists during the 11-week air war, which ended on June 10, in the Yugoslav capital Belgrade and northern Serbian town of Subotica. At the same time UNICEF organised teams of psychologists who worked with children in shelters in several Serbian towns.

"We wanted to give the opportunity to Serbian children to express their opinions and intimate experiences, to describe freely their feelings, fears, hopes, and sorrows related to the war," said project leader Zarko Trebjesanin.

They were also encouraged to do drawings representing their deepest feelings. Their works were filled with weeping faces, cemeteries, people with knives and pistols, falling bombs and destroyed houses.

Almost half the children questioned said they hated going to the shelters, because they were dirty and smelled bad and they feared they would collapse and bury them.

"I was always crying in the shelter because I was afraid," five-year-old Ivana said.


"The real consequences of the air strikes on the mental health of children will show up in a few years' time. Even before they happened we had a high level of stress and trauma related to war and crisis," said UNICEF's Belgrade officer Svetlana Marojevic.

Most of the children understandably could not grasp the complex political background to the war, sparked by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's refusal to agree to an autonomy deal for Serbia's southern province Kosovo, which has a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority.

Asked why NATO attacked Yugoslavia, eight-year-old Katarina said: "Because Milosevic did not sign something." Her friend Suzana replied: "Presidents got into a fight, because Albania wants our Kosovo.''

Zorica, 10, said: ``People fight because they have some interests. Politicians are not good people at all because they always want more. If it would be up to the people to decide, everything would be peaceful.''

During the war children learned some new expressions which kept cropping up in news reports and conversations, such as ``civilian'' and ``victim,'' and interpreted them in their own ways.

``A victim is when my father cannot go to work and when we children cannot go to school,'' said Branko, 9, said, while seven-year-old Tamara believed ``victims are people who don't work.''

Filip, five, said: ``Civilians are people who go to cellars, and when there is no bombing they go home, eat and sleep,'' while Nikola believed that ``civilians are the targets of the attacks.''

Six-year-old Marko, showing a degree of scepticism way beyond his years, said in response to a question: ``A military secret is when people die and the news says there were no victims.''

Marija, seven, saw peace as ``when we can go with friends to McDonalds and the zoo,'' while for Srdjan, six: ``Peace is when we play, walk, drive a car, when flowers grow and nothing is dirty, and when I'm not afraid of anything.''

For 12-year-old Sima, peace was simply ``what we had before and we don't have any more.''

More than half of the children said they never talked with anyone about their fears. ``When I'm afraid I run away, but since I don't have anywhere to, I go under the blanket, into my personal shelter, and wait,'' seven-year-old Aleksandar said.

The emotional stability of parents emerged as a crucial factor for feelings of security among children, with as many as 80 percent saying their parents were able to protect them.

In contrast, some 65 percent of parents said they had no confidence in their ability to deal with the war-related stresses and problems, though single mothers appeared to be more confident than those in two-parent families.

An interesting finding was that less well-educated parents feared the psychological consequences of the war on their children much more than better-educated ones, and worked harder to compensate by trying to create a feeling of normality with regular activities.

But for many children, like five-year-old Dara, calming their fears was always going to be an uphill battle.

The war, she explained, was ``when we think they are throwing chocolates and toys out of planes and then we see they are bombs, and when those hit the zoo and all the animals come out and eat us.''

Return to the 'NATO Bombing - has it brought peace to the Balkans?' Alert.

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