SLEPTSOVSK, RUSSIA — A pencil-and-crayon drawing tells the story in startling detail: A fighter plane with a bright red star on its fuselage spews rockets toward a multistoried apartment that's already aflame. On the ground below, a group of terrified figures are fleeing.
"That's my house," says the artist, 11-year-old Milana Sulipa, a slight Chechen girl whose dark hair is sternly gathered into a bun. Her mood seems to be wound just as tightly.
"That's my mother and me," she adds, pointing to a large and a small figure at the bottom of the picture.
Milana, a refugee from the devastated Chechen capital, Grozny, is one of hundreds of children who each day visit this makeshift schoolroom at the edge of the Sputnik refugee camp in eastern Ingushetia. Sitting at small folding tables, with sunlight streaming through the tent's canvas windows, a volunteer encourages the kids to use painting as a means to reflect on their nightmarish experiences. The sessions are called art therapy.
"I couldn't draw a helicopter gunship to save my life, but most of these children can represent one perfectly, down to the smallest detail," says psychologist Tamara Khaduyeva. Herself a refugee from Grozny, she works for a private British charity, the Center for Peacemaking and Community Development. "They put their experiences onto paper, over and over again."
Over 200,000 Chechens have fled into neighboring Ingushetia since Russia launched a military operation last October to crush Chechnya's decade-old independence drive. About 80 percent of the refugees are women and children, and a majority of them are from Grozny.
All of the volunteers working with refugees are either Chechen or Ingush, because the entire region is still deemed unsafe for foreign nationals. After the 1994-96 Chechen war, armed gangs ran rampant in Ingushetia, and kidnapped hundreds of people, including many foreign aid workers. Though there have been no kidnappings for several months, UN monitors, journalists and international humanitarian workers only make brief visits to the camps, always accompanied by heavily-armed guards.
The Sputnik camp, just a mile from the Chechen border, is an overcrowded tent city of about 10,000 sitting on a bleak plain, virtually in the shadow of the high, snow-capped Caucasus Mountains. Administrators here say the threat of cold and hunger that stalked the camp last winter has receded with the coming of spring and greater quantities of international aid.
"Still, there is nothing resembling normal conditions here, especially for the children," says Murat Sarapalov, an Ingush volunteer for the United Nations. "There is a crushing need to address not only the physical survival of these kids, but also the spiritual pain and hopelessness they are feeling."
A handful of volunteers, funded by donations from Western governments and charity groups, are trying to come to grips with the post-traumatic stress disorders they say afflict most Chechen children.
"All that violence has influenced their minds," says Fatima Abdoulkhadjeyeva, a refugee from Grozny who works with the Agency for Rehabilitation and Development, a Dutch-funded charity. "Gradually they start to hate the Russians. A new generation of rebel fighters is growing up here in the camps."
Mahmoud Gidayev, a 10-year old with close-cropped brown hair, illustrates that point. His drawing also shows a helicopter pounding an apartment building with rockets and bombs. But his explanation is different. "That's a Chechen helicopter," he says grimly. "That's a Russian house."
The Kremlin's forces, which have occupied most of the separatist republic of Chechnya after eight months of bitter fighting, insist they have conducted the war with due regard for the lives of civilians.
But human rights experts and other observers say the Russian Army advanced through Chechnya behind a screen of heavy weapons fire that devastated everything in its path.
The volunteers working with Chechen kids in the Sputnik camp say the frightening images they keep putting down on paper are drawn from life.
"If someone wants to say that these children are making things up, then let them," says Ms. Khaduyeva. "I don't want to argue about that. My purpose here is to help the kids face their experiences and hopefully to heal their minds."
She shows a series of drawings done by nine-year-old Zareta. In the early drawings the girl's home, a village farmhouse, is a charred wreck and several family members are lying dead outside. But by the 10th version the girl has drawn an underground bomb shelter, and her family is depicted as safely hiding inside.
"That's a huge victory," says Khaduyeva. "However horrible the things she has gone through, she has worked them out. She has allowed herself to hope."
Grozny, once a city of 250,000, is today a near-deserted ruin. Most of its population is dispersed among refugee camps, a situation experts say will probably take a long time to redeem, if ever. Moscow has shown no sign of being ready, or willing, to commit the resources to rebuild the city. Officials have even mused about moving Chechnya's capital to Gudermes, the republic's second largest town, which is still largely intact.
"We have to consider the scenario in which most of these refugees remain homeless and displaced for many years," says Fritz Lherisson, a UNICEF representative. "All wars are in some sense against children, but this war has shown no mercy to them. There is a desperate need to reach them in those camps, to provide them not only with material assistance but also with a chance to believe in the future."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society