Wounds Of War: Srebrenica's Children

Srebrenica's children took advantage of the warm, sunny afternoon of April 12--the day the NATO no-fly zone went into effect-to come out from their shelters and kick a soccer ball around the town's schoolyard. But in the space of a minute, the game turned from a rare moment of fun into a scene of horror. Seven Serbian rockets and shells fired from the surrounding hills landed suddenly on the crowd. Thirty-six people were killed, half of them women and children: one woman lay dead, still clutching the hands of her two decapitated children. An additional 102 people were seriously injured. "Blood flowed like a river in the street," says Dr. Nedret Mujkanovic, a volunteer Bosnian army surgeon who witnessed the scene and attended the wounded.

War is always cruelest to children, and the war in Bosnia has been no exception. But few of Bosnia's children have seen and endured more hell than those who have lived through the yearlong siege of Srebrenica. Most of them first had to flee Muslim villages sacked and burned by the Serbs, only to come to a place where shellfire was but one threat: disease and hunger have been responsible for killing many of the 1,000 children who died in Srebrenica in the last nine months, says Mujkanovic. U.S, airdrops of medicine and food have helped but, according to U.N. official John McMillan, 10 percent of the children left in town have scurvy.

In Tuzla's hospital, doctors have operated on 11 shrapnel-maimed children recently evacuated from the besieged town. The youngest was 2 1/2 years old. Three kids have had legs amputated. They recover in the hospital's crowded, grimy, basement pediatric ward, which has medicine and milk, but no fruit or vegetables. In one crib sits a 1-year-old girl, blinking listlessly through the bulging eyes of malnutrition. She weighs only about 12 pounds. Doctors at the hospital call her Amela Jusufovic-roughly, Jane Doe-because they have no idea who she is or who her parents are. She was brought to the hospital early this month by an official of Tuzla's refugee-reception center. Apparently, the baby was simply thrust aboard a U.N. truck during the mad rush to escape Srebrenica, and no one claimed her when she got to Tuzla. "Orphans are children without love," says Dr. Petar Barisic. "The nurses try to hold her, but we can't be like a mother."

The doctors and nurses can soothe the physical pain, but deeper wounds remain. Eyes wide and voice trembling, Shefik Ibisovic, 10, spreads his arms and cups his hands around two imaginary pairs of shoulders. He is re-enacting the moment when Serbian nationalists forced his relative, Muharem, and Muharem's two sons to stand against a wall-and then shot all three to death as they huddled together. The image of that last embrace has probably been imprinted on his mind forever, says Rune Stuvland, a UNICEF psychologist from Norway who is counseling Srebrenica children. "When a child is traumatized like these have been," he says, "they see the picture of the experience in their minds like a movie, in color, with sound."

Shefik's willingness to describe his inner "movie" was rare. Alma Pejimanovic, 13, lost her right thumb when a shell hit her home in a village near Srebrenica. Her mother was killed in the same attack; her father is still fighting on the front line. Gently prompted to tell about the shell attack, she simply bursts into tears. Inside the Tuzla orphanage, where dozens of children from Srebrenica have been brought, boisterous kids stammer and fall silent when asked to describe their experiences. "Sometimes the movie just overwhelms current reality," says Stuvland. He offered the kids paper and crayons and told them to draw anything they wished. The result was a vivid gallery of planes, tanks and flaming villages. The scene they chose most frequently to draw: that April 12 attack on what had been their playground.