It was a feel-good scene in post-war Kosovo. British NATO troops had just finished fixing up the Our Happiness Kindergarten in Pristina. Soldiers of the 7th Signals Regiment put on a barbecue. Ethnic Albanian children ages 4 to 7 joined hands and sang, in English, "I'm a free, free child in this free, free world." The headmistress, Afudita Mulla, looked on approvingly. An ethnic Albanian fired from her job at the school a decade ago as Kosovo began its spiral into ethnic strife, Mulla is clear about her goals: "We must teach children not to hate anyone." So when classes open this week, there will no longer be separate playgrounds or separate entrances for Albanians and Serbs. "The doors," said Mulla, "are open for everybody."
And yet not a single Serb has come through those doors to register a child. Partly that's because there are precious few Serbs left anywhere in Kosovo. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees puts the total number of Serbs still in Kosovo at 50,000, less than one fourth of the prewar number; many experts believe the real number is much lower. Only a few weeks ago the shabby apartment blocks that surround Our Happiness were full of Serbs and their children. "Some went on their own, and some we forced out," bragged a 7-year-old Albanian girl. In the playground, the children howled with pleasure as KFOR soldiers clambered over the brightly decorated slides and monkey bars they had built for the kids. "I don't have words to describe the happiness I feel when I hear these children laughing," said Mulla. Then 9-year-old Laurant, a serious-faced redhead, pulled a gun-metal gray automatic pistol out from under his T shirt; it was only a toy, but it looked large and frighteningly real in his hand. What are you going to do with that? an adult asked him. "Kill Serbs," he replied without hesitation.
The armies of Albanian children who harbor that kind of attitude are part of the reason Serbs continue to leave Kosovo. While many of the kids' parents, and most of their leaders, pay lip service to the idea of a multiethnic society, children act out what perhaps many adults feel. "Now it should only be Albanians here," said Vlera Halili, an 11-year-old girl with a hard edge to her voice, "because [the Serbs] wanted it to be only Serbs and they lost." Her mother, Buki, disagreed: "For me it's possible for Serbs and Albanians to live together," she says. Her daughter would have none of it. "It's their turn to leave their homes," she says.
Many children act on those convictions. The attitudes of Serbian kids can also be harsh--though there are so many fewer of them these days. During the war, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, Serbian teenagers hanging around the notorious prison in Mitrovica were invited inside to participate in torturing ethnic Albanian inmates. Among Albanian kids, according to KFOR officers and human-rights workers, there have been numerous recent incidents of youth gangs stoning elderly Serbs. An Albanian human-rights worker said that Kosovo Liberation Army officials were encouraging children 10 and even younger to systematically harass Serbs. When she and a Serb colleague were walking down a street in Pristina recently, a group of six Albanian 10-year-olds converged on them and started shoving them. When the kids realized one of their prey was Albanian, they stopped, but warned her they would report her to the KLA for speaking Serbo-Croatian.
In Podujevo, in northeastern Kosovo, children have made life a torment for the two remaining Serbs. With no surviving family, two friends, Jelica Cimbrovic, 87, and Jelica Milanovic, 72, decided to remain in Podujevo when the rest of the Serbs followed their withdrawing troops. Recently a group of Albanian kids banged on their apartment door, shouting--as so many Serb policemen did when they were banishing Albanians--"You have one minute to leave." The kids were 10 years old.
At the toy store in the Cimic Center, Pristina's main shopping concourse, mock Colt M-19 automatic pistols fly off the shelves at a dozen a day. The price--five German marks (about $2.60) apiece--is high by local standards. Tom Jones, a Texas policeman on the U.N. force, said incidents of stoning Serbs and shooting at them with the air pistols were commonplace among the kids in Pristina. "Children are products of their environment," he says. "Their parents hate, and they're going to hate."
Still, the parents may know how to control that hate a little better. They speak Serbo-Croatian, and grew up going to school and working together. Then when Slobodan Milosevic stripped autonomy from Kosovar Albanians in 1989, the Albanian community responded by creating a parallel society, boycotting most Serb institutions from hospitals to schools and creating their own underground community. That meant that kids younger than 15 or so rarely intermingled. "Children didn't know Serbs who were not cops," said Shkelzen Maliqi, a liberal ethnic Albanian philosopher and writer who runs the Soros Fund for an Open Society in Kosovo.
It got worse. During the war, ethnic Albanian children came to know Serbs as their implacable enemies. Flamur Dushnaku, 15, remembers vividly the hardship of the war months. Kicked out of two different apartments by Serb police, his family fled into the hills around Podujevo and lived by scrounging in the fields, most of the time sleeping in a wagon pulled by a tractor. He seems like a nice boy, and plays fondly with his little brother Afrim, but when it comes to Serbs, his attitude is hardbitten. "They did everything to us," he said. "They put guns to the heads of children smaller than me, and if I was them I would be afraid too. Everything they did to us, we will do to them." As long as such a vengeful hatred prevails in young minds, there's little hope for reconciliation in Kosovo.