A war is more than bombs and blankets;Another Voice;Opinion

9th April 1999 at 01:00
"WHERE are the British donors? Where is the Department for International Development?" asked an aid worker, despairing at the lack of response to the Kosovo crisis.

But the words of Paul Roberts of Children's Aid Direct did not come this week, as tens of thousands of refugees gathered on Kosovo's borders threatening a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable magnitude. His questions were put to me a month ago in Pristina, Kosovo's first city, before the first deadline for NATO airstrikes failed to secure Slobodan Milosevic's signature to a peace agreement. He was not talking about food and blankets; he was talking about emergency education.

Too often the action of NATO governments in this war seems to have been put on hold until public opinion has caught up with the needs on the ground.

The idea that the oppression of the Kosovo Albanians began when the international monitors left before the air strikes ignores not just the massacre at Racak in January but the systematic sacking over the past year of entire villages - including the damaging or destruction of 163 schools, one of them reduced to four supporting pillars rising out of a carpet of rubble, and 12 more turned into police barracks.

In Kosovo, I met families who had lived for up to seven months in the woods, scared to go home because their houses had been shelled, looted and torched. I met a father who was afraid to go to the hospital to get shrapnel removed from his leg because his identity documents had been burned and he feared he would be taken hostage or worse. A two-week-old child had died a few days earlier in his house, where 19 people were sheltering behind its burnt bare walls.

I met children whose foreheads tightened with fear every time they talked about the shelling, fearing the armed police's return. I don't know how many of them are still alive. I heard last week that those who had not fled were in hiding and running out of food. Their only hope seemed to be the long march to the border.

Those that have escaped the Serbian bullet are entitled to ask why NATO launched a half-war, without the back-up of ground troops, and why so little planning or urgency appeared to go into the delivery of emergency relief.

But they may also question our assumption of what emergency relief should entail. This war should not be about just bombs and blankets. A large portion of the refugees are children. They may have survived themselves, but many will have lost a father or brother, will have seen unspeakable atrocities and will have been worn down with the constant fear of attack during the past year.

Even before this round of the conflict, some 60,000 displaced children in Kosovo were not at school nor receiving any kind of psycho-social support to come to terms with their experiences. The United Nations' Children's Fund (UNICEF) had begun a programme to train a pool of teacher-facilitators to provide this sort of help through structured creative play classes to 20,000 pupils. The need now will be immensely greater, as the number of people displaced or forcibly deported has risen by several hundred thousand.

One expert in education in emergencies is Pilar Aguilar, whose mission to assess the education needs in Kosovo was cut short by the threat of air strikes, and who has drawn up a report based on experiences in Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan and other conflicts. She says the first step can be to provide structured play, using kits of recreational props like drawing paper, basketballs and skipping ropes, to provide play activities and psycho-social support that are crucial to alleviating stress, raising self-esteem and encouraging healing. Without trained adult intervention, younger children in particular may simply reinforce their anxiety in the way they deal with traumatic events in their play.

The next step can be the use of emergency teaching packages - a "school in a box" - that will equip teachers to conduct classes in literacy and numeracy for up to 80 children, wherever they may be - an important factor for refugees whose future is not settled.

Some thought too will have to be given to projects for teenagers. A vulnerable group at the best of times, many will have lost their families and will face all kinds of risks - as they did in Pristina before the latest exodus - living and working on the streets.

The long-term need, if NATO achieves its aim of winning Kosovo back for the Kosovo Albanians, will be for the provision of temporary classrooms and the reconstruction of shelled and ransacked schools.

Children now need blankets and medicine like everyone else caught on Kosovo's border. But it will require a real leap of imagination so far lacking from NATO governments to attend to their psychological needs and make education part of the relief effort.

Brendan O'Malley isforeign editor of the TES If you would like to help UNICEF's relief work with the victims of the crisis in Kosovo by raising funds in your school, please send cheques (payable to UNICEF) to The TES Kosovo Appeal, UNICEF, Freepost, Chelmsford, CMT 8BR

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