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Childhoods Interrupted by War
January 1, 1999
"What was it like before the war?"
These three questions were put to 100 Bosnian and Croatian children between 6 and 12 years of age who were displaced from their homes and living in temporary (and unsafe) conditions in Croatia. It was 1993, at the height of the war in the former Yugoslavia, and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières was developing ways to help traumatized children express their experiences of war.
The result of this endeavor is "Childhoods Interrupted," a moving exhibit of 54 original drawings, each responding to one of the three questions and designed to raise international awareness of the atrocities that were committed against civilian populations in the Bosnian war. The exhibit premiered at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1993 and toured throughout Europe before it visited New York, Boston and Los Angeles in January 1999.
The trauma experienced by these young children is evident in their use of color, disproportion, or sense of detachment. The texts accompanying the drawings describe the experiences that inspired each drawing: a seven year old witnesses a public rape of a young girl; a nine year old remembers his house being bombed and his ensuing evacuation; empty landscapes reflect the disappearance of civilians from the village of a five year old whose father was among those massacred.
Throughout the war in the former Yugoslavia, Doctors Without Borders ran surgery programs, distributed medical supplies and drugs to hospitals and clinics, operated mobile clinics, and worked in refugee camps.
Confronted with an entire population experiencing intense and massive trauma, Doctors Without Borders implemented a comprehensive mental health program which continues to this day in the hands of the Bosnians themselves. Begun in 1993, the program was structured to respond to the emotional trauma of tens of thousands of people, including children, affected by the war and atrocities they had witnessed. It was in this context that the project took shape.
MATJA - 7 years old
"Before the war, I lived in Cilipi, near Dubrovnik. It was very nice and the oak trees smelled good."
"When the first bombs fell, I was in my basement and then we went to Dubrovnik. The Chetniks then burned my house by dropping bombs on it. Then they burned everything that was in it."
Matja does not accept this situation and explains that there must be justice: "I would like a new house like a castle and I would like the people who destroyed it to be punished by making them rebuild a castle. I also want them to give me back the boat they stole. I want the little brook next to my house, the waterfalls and the things I had in the house. I want my grandmother to come back alive from Bosnia."
TEODORA - 5 years old
Teodora remembers her house and the garden where she played happily: "There was a swing an apple tree and a cherry tree."
Teodora refused to draw a picture on the second subject. While the other children were drawing pictures of the war, Teodora sat sadly looking at a blank sheet of paper, incapable of drawing a single line or even explaining why. Her mother told her story when she came to pick her up. Teodora's father had been slightly wounded during the siege and had been hospitalized. He was a part of a convoy of wounded evacuated from the hospital when Vukovar fell and who were taken from the control of the Red Cross in blatant disregard of the international conventions. The members of the convoy were long reported as missing until foreign journalists discovered mass graves near Ovcara where they had probably been thrown after having been massacred. Teodora's mother refuses to accept that her husband had been massacred and is waiting for proof before she will believe it. Teodora is not supposed to know why her father is not there.
"This is me, my friend and a balloon which got away from us." Her feet are not on the ground. Teodora's unconscious has understood that she must ignore the truth: the death of her father.
ADNAN - 10 years old.
An all-powerful Serb contemplates the siege of Sarajevo while watching without emotion as a man bleeds to death and stretches his hand out in a plea for help.
Men wearing black hoods arrived and arbitrarily arrested men to take them to an unknown destination which may have been death.
ARMINKA - 10 years old
Arminka imagines that he will see a disaster on his return to Zvornik. Nothing is left but ruins. This is not very far from the reality, since certain cities in eastern Bosnia have been virtually devastated.
SABAHUDIN - 12 years old
Sabahudin lived in Kiljuc, a city of approximately 40,000 inhabitants in western Bosnia. Catholics and Muslims lived together happily, since a church and a mosque are drawn in the middle of a peaceful and carefree-looking population.
Sabahudin's remarkably detailed drawing shows the attack on the city by planes, tanks and ground troops who massacred the inhabitants.