Learning The Killing Game

It was a feel-good scene in post-war Kosovo. British NATO troops hosted a barbecue to celebrate fixing up the Our Happiness Kindergarten in Pristina. Ethnic Albanian children aged 4 to 7 joined hands and sang, in English, "I'm a free, free child in this free, free world." The new ethnic Albanian headmistress, Afudita Mulla, looked on approvingly. "We must teach children not to hate anyone," she said. So when classes opened last week, for the first time in a decade there were no longer separate entrances and walls down the middle of the halls to keep Albanians and Serbs apart. "The doors," said Mulla, "are open for everybody."

Yet not a single Serb came through those doors to register a child, even though the shabby apartment blocks that surround Our Happiness were full of Serbs and their children before the summer. "Some went on their own, and some we forced out," bragged a 7-year-old Albanian girl. Then 9-year-old Laurant, a serious-faced redhead, pulled a gunmetal-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 feel like that are part of the reason that Serbs continue to leave Kosovo. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees reckons only 50,000 of 200,000 Serbs who were there before the war remain today. Officially, Albanian leaders pay lip service to the ideal of a multiethnic society. But the kids either aren't listening--or know what their parents really think. "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 said. Her daughter would have none of it. "It's their turn to leave their homes," she said.

Gangs of small children often throw rocks at elderly Serbs or shoot them with pellet guns, screaming the only words they know in Serbo-Croatian--the curses they grew up hearing from Serbian soldiers and police. "Children didn't know Serbs who were not cops," said Shkelzen Maliqi, a liberal ethnic-Albanian philosopher who runs the Soros Fund for an Open Society in Kosovo.

In Podujevo, a city in northeast Kosovo, children have made life a torment for the two remaining Serbs. Jelica Cimbrovic, 87, and Jelica Milanovic, 72, decided to remain when the rest followed their withdrawing troops. Now gangs of Albanian kids bang on the apartment door of these old women, shouting--as Serb policemen did when they were banishing Albanians--"Youhave one minute to leave." The kids are 10 years old.

At a toy store in Pristina's main shopping mall, mock "Colt M-19" automatic pistols fly off the shelves a dozen a day, despite a price, about $2.60, that is high by local standards. Even tough American policemen serving with the U.N. organization trying to establish a civil justice system find these realistic toys unsettling. ''Unless you pick one of them up, you couldn't tell the difference,'' said Louis Hearn, a veteran of the Houston Police Department. ''The clip comes out and all, and the slide goes forward. It's a cruel joke, whoever's selling them.''

It was a cruel war, and children often suffered the most. Some aid workers estimate that as many as a tenth of Albanian children could be clinically diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, after witnessing family members murdered or suffering months of hiding out in the mountains. Child Advocacy International's child psychiatrist, until recently the only one in Kosovo, has been seeing eight kids a day. One boy in play therapy, an 8-year-old, kept putting Serb soldiers on the tracks of a toy train to cut off their heads. ''That was hard to see,'' said director Shkumbin Dauti, ''but then he had lost his father, his sister, his uncle and two siblings.'' Serb kids were marked too, though in different ways. According to a researcher for Human Rights Watch, Serbian teenagers and children around the notorious prison in Mitrovica were invited inside to participate in torturing Albanian inmates.

For a lot of Albanian children, vengeance is an obsession. Flamur Dushnaku, 15, remembers when his family was on the run, scrounging for food in abandoned homes. "Everything [the Serbs] did to us, we will do to them," he vows. Dauti, of Child Advocacy, doesn't think this obsession will pass until Serb war criminals are brought to account for what happened in Kosovo. The kids are haunted by the idea that people who murdered their families are living free in Serbia. "Above all, these kids need to see justice," says Dauti. "Otherwise they will keep that hate.'' But the Serbs who were responsible for Kosovo's horrors are mostly long gone. The tragedy is that those who remain, Serbs or Albanians, adults or children, continue to pay a heavy price for what others did to them.