Little peace for children of war

21st May 1999 at 01:00
"KOSOVO is an important part of Serbia. You would fight for London and we will fight for Kosovo," insists nine-year-old Boris.

Boris is a Sunday-school pupil at the Serbian Orthodox church and community centre in west London. Here Anglo-Serb children are taught about the Cyrillic alphabet and Serb history, religion, culture and customs.

But since the war began, Sunday-school staff have had an increasingly pastoral role as children report tales of taunts, bullying and threats at school.

Smilija Krneta is encouraging her class to talk about the war and their feelings. Daniel, eight, tearfully tells how his best friend said he never wants to play with him again, because he's a mean Serb.

Mrs Krneta says: "Children say what they hear at home and twist it - like 'Nato's coming to get you' or 'you're a horrible Serb'."

There are more than 50,000 Serbians in the UK, and about 35,000 live in west London.

The church, run by Father Milan Kostic, head of the Orthodox church in England, has a congregation of around 800 families.

Many Serbs came here as refugees in World War Two. In one classroom pictures of the Queen sit alongside photographs of a champion folk-dancing team and portraits of Orthodox saints.

"I'm a Serbian with British origin," says George, 10. His friend Boris tells how he made a protest banner against the Nato bombardment, saying:

"I'm English and Serbian, but I'm ashamed to be English."

Several children talk emotionally about relatives in Serbia. Many families have access to official Yugoslav television via satellite, and children recall seeing pictures of "people with bones sticking out and heads torn off" after a NATO bombing raid.

None know any Albanians. "But I wouldn't dislike people because they were Albanian, but I might if they were bad people and wanted to take over Kosovo," says 11-year-old George.

When the children are asked if they'd like people to live together, teacher-chemist Radorica Mitrovic, who has lived in England since 1964, cannot conceal his anger.

"You think that's possible. But where was your country 10 years ago when the Kosovo Liberation Army raped nuns and burnt churches? We invited them into Kosovo and gave them jobs and homes, now they want to take over.

"Look at these pictures of so-called refugees, they are well-fed and their children are well-presented. It's all propaganda. It was the same in Bosnia. Who threw that grenade in the market-place in Sarajevo? Muslims did it themselves as a publicity stunt."

Father Kostic says he'd rather children didn't "sit around discussing the war", which he calls devil's work.

He is much happier teaching them Serbian folk poetry. "Bernard Shaw and Goethe learnt our language so they could understand the poetry," he says. But even then, Kosovo is never far away, as much Serbian literature and folklore is rooted there.

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