The psychology of art

Traumatized by war, Kosovar children express their anger, fear and hope through art.

Published June 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the refugee camps, there are children who draw burning houses, bombs exploding and dead people bleeding on the ground. But those are not the ones to worry about. The children who are truly troubled are those who paint sunflowers and daisies, cloudless blue skies and golden sun rays shining down on a cut lawn. On paper, everything is right with their world.

Psychologists who deal with trauma have seen this before -- in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Afghanistan -- in corners of the world where children's secure lives have been wrenched from their sockets. When a catastrophe like war occurs, children are tossed upon the emotional high seas and left adrift in the turmoil. As their reality begins to take on some grim new shape, they start drawing pictures of what they have seen -- and of what they wish they still could -- offering tentative glimpses into the chaos within them.

To one walking through this sprawling refugee camp just north of Macedonia's capital, Skopje, that chaos is not at all obvious. Children are squealing with laughter between the tents, jumping elastic tied around garbage cans and shooting hoops on makeshift basketball courts staked out in the mud. Some play elaborate hide-and-seek games between the tent ropes; others walk the paths, their arms linked, as though strolling through a Pristina park on a lazy weekend afternoon.

"They look happy, but underneath, it is something very different," says Zana Dobroshi, who left her home in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, 18 years ago. Now a child psychiatrist at Case Western University in Cleveland, she flew back to the Balkans in April to volunteer her services in the camps, and has spent the past several weeks doing triage on a few shattered psyches.

I first met Dobroshi walking down a hillside early one morning in Blace, a transit camp bordering Kosovo. Most refugees fleeing across the Macedonian border find themselves here, before they are assigned to camps like Stankovic. Dobroshi had made it her task to tour Blace every day, looking for new arrivals in particularly bad shape.

When I stopped to ask her what she was doing there, she sighed deeply and said she was on her way to see an 18-year-old girl who had been raped by Serbian soldiers. The girl had tied a scarf around her head during her flight from Kosovo, trying to hide her youth and prettiness from the soldiers along the way. But the ploy failed, and by the time Dobroshi met her, she was devastated. "She cannot sleep, she won't talk, she is vomiting all the time," she said. "I am trying to take her some homemade food, Albanian food. Maybe she will be able to eat this."

When I meet Dobroshi again in Stankovic a few days later, she has drawings from some of the refugee children to show me. She holds up a picture of red flowers given to her by a 7-year-old girl she interviewed last week at Blace. The girl told Dobroshi that she had stood outside her home in Kacanik, near the Macedonian border, and watched as people were killed across the street. Then, she and her family hid in the woods for a week until they were able to flee across the border to safety in Macedonia. "This was one of the most traumatized children I've seen, and yet she paints flowers," says Dobroshi. "It is as if she's saying, 'I want to draw flowers so you can be happy.'"

Jean-Claude Le Grande, a seven-year UNICEF veteran and sociologist who works on humanitarian emergencies, has seen this phenomenon before among children who have endured severe trauma. "This sort of behavior may be avoidance of reality. But you also have to understand that children have a huge capacity of resilience, adaptation to situations," he says. "This has been in their lives for the past two to three years. The tension, the fear was there for a long time. They may have already adapted."

All over this sprawling camp, with its shifting population of about 25,000 people, Kosovo's children have been painting. Their work is tacked against fences, or stuck clumsily with tape inside the tents of relief agencies. Others are pinned to the walls of their family tents, perhaps in an attempt to substitute the real paintings many of them abandoned on the walls of the homes they fled in minutes.

Cegrane camp has about 30,000 refugees. A small tent has been set aside for the teaching of children two hours a day. It is decorated with drawings of a lost world: pretty houses framed by trees and paved pathways, pets and curtains in the windows.

The most popular themes are the children's new wartime idols, who might help make sense of their upheaval: the Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers, the Apache pilots, the NATO forces. In camps both in Macedonia, where almost 250,000 Kosovars are now in exile, and in Albania, with more than 440,000 Kosovo refugees, little drawings are scrawled across tents. They make up a mural of NATO's compass symbol, allied planes and graffiti reading, "UCK," the Albanian acronym for the KLA.

At the back of this camp, an Israeli aid organization has cordoned off a compound as a children's playground, tied poster-sized sheets of hard paper to the fences and left paints and palettes out for anyone to use. Most days, you can find a group of children huddled around the spot.

Vlora Ademi and Flamur Jashamica spent last Saturday morning there. In near silence, they painted scenes in stunning contrast to the environment around them. "This is my house," says Vlora, 13, who fled from Urosevac in late April with her family, and then adds as she paints brown flames leaping from the roof of her home, "They burned my house; I saw it burning."

In both Albania and Macedonia, counselors working for UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders seek out children with symptoms of depression or other trauma from war, which might include nightmares, regressive behavior such as bed wetting, or withdrawal, says Le Grande. All those behaviors are expected reactions to the sense of upheaval as refugees, as well as to the ghastly events they have witnessed.

"How do you live in an environment where you cannot trust adults anymore?" asks Le Grande. "You have been harmed by adults who could have been your neighbors before. You have not been protected by your parents. You have not been protected by anybody."

Psychologists who have arrived in the Balkans during the past few months say it often takes children some time before they are able to start painting. Not only do they need time to recover, but their shattered parents are often also unable to cope with their children's problems. At first, says Kas de Jong, a Dutch therapist working in Stankovic for Doctors Without Borders, "people are shocked. They arrive like walking volcanoes. But they cannot go to their neighbors for help, because everyone has been through the same thing."

While it is difficult for refugees to talk about what has happened, keeping silent will only prolong the negative effects of the war on the children in the community, says Le Grande.

"These children need information, a sense of explanation, even of that which is most difficult: 'Why has the world not done anything for Kosovo?'" he says. "Children have the capacity to analyze and feel more secure ... Parents, relief workers and caregivers need to be aware of what is happening to the children, and themselves. The best way to get through that is to communicate."

At the children's compound, Flamur Jashamica, 10, fills his poster paper with perfectly painted Apache helicopters. When I ask where he comes from, he points to a house tucked in the bottom corner of the poster. "That's my house in Lipljan," he says. Refugees arriving at Blace from Lipljan reported there had been a massacre there. "Our house had two floors. But they told us to leave, and I don't know what happened to my home."

There is only a fragile possibility that Flamur will ever see that house again. For now, he will re-create it over and over in paintings here in Stankovic.

By Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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