Mending Childhoods Torn Apart by War

Save the Children works to renew hope for kids stuck in war, poverty

JIM NUTTALL describes the 28 preschool centers he and his colleagues helped organize among the thousands of refugees clinging to Croatia's Dalmatian coast as ``psycho-social first aid.''

The centers, which have been made as secure as possible from the shells that periodically lob into towns in that area, give mothers ``a mental break'' from fear for their children's safety, Mr. Nuttall says. And they give the children ``a couple of hours of childhood every day.''

Nuttall, an intense, precise man eager to discuss his work and eager to return to it, was one of dozens of Save the Children field office directors who gathered at the agency's Westport, Conn., headquarters recently to compare notes and learn from each other's experience.

The worldwide nonprofit agency began its work in the United States in the early 1930s, addressing Depression-era poverty in Harlan County, Kentucky. Its programs currently embrace 35 countries, and it's still very active in the US as well.

Nuttall has one of the most difficult assignments Save the Children can offer. He, his staff, and the representatives of the other humanitarian agencies he's working with hope to extend the preschool centers into parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and even into Sarajevo itself. But the political climate, hovering between a fragile cease-fire and greater violence, makes planning difficult.

When Nuttall and his wife first arrived in Croatia last June, Save the Children's original goal had been to get a program under way in Bosnia immediately. But he found that aid supplies had stacked up in ports because of the difficulty of traveling inland to Bosnia. Moreover, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was asking private agencies to see what could be done about the refugees crammed into former luxury hotels along the coast north of the port city of Split.

Nuttall, who made a quick transition to the Balkans after a stint in Malawi helping refugees from neighboring Mozambique's vicious civil conflict, has worked all over the world with people uprooted by war and economic upheaval. But he was unprepared for what the refugee ``camps'' of Dalmatia presented.

``I was shocked,'' he says. ``It was like being in bedlam.'' People were packed into the hotels, but many of them seemed stuck in stunned isolation, says Nuttall. They were walking around aimlessly, holding conversations with themselves. The atrocities they'd seen - and particularly the experience of having once-trusted neighbors turn on each other - hung in the air, says Nuttall, as did the possibility of violence among them.

The first preschool center was organized in a small town whose hotel held 1,000 refugees, about one-third Bosnian Muslim, one-third Bosnian Croat, and one-third Croatians forced to flee parts of their own country. Initial efforts to talk with one group would be met with screams from others. Women working with Save the Children finally were able to get Croatian and Muslim mothers together to talk about the common needs of their children, many of whom had been deprived of school for two years.

Eventually two rooms were organized - a play area for the younger children and a study area for older kids. Nuttall remembers one nine-year-old girl who started crying when she sat down in the room among books and paper. ``She said she thought she had forgotten how to read and write,'' he says, underscoring the tragedy of a place where education and prosperity were once plentiful.

WHERE Nuttall used to work in southern Africa, tremors from Mozambique's civil war continue. Justin Opoku, field office director for Mozambique, estimates that 100,000 refugees are still in need. A major part of Save the Children's work is reuniting children with their families.

Since the October 1992 cease-fire - which, unlike many truces in the Balkans or in nearby parts of Africa, has held - the agency has been able to identify many more children orphaned by the war. Save the Children workers have also been increasingly able to move about the country by ground transport and are now active in six of Mozambique's 11 provinces, Mr. Opoku says.

The process of reuniting children and families is ``not too difficult'' within Mozambique, says Opoku, since people from a child's home area readily accept youngsters who share their cultural heritage. But children in refugee camps who have been in the foster care of families with different ethnic backgrounds are sometimes left behind when those families return to Mozambique.

Another problem is the thousands of youths who became soldiers when barely teenagers and have known nothing but fighting for years. Save the Children has helped set up programs to counsel and retrain them.

Despite the problems of recovering from a war that lasted more than a decade and nearly demolished the country's economic base, Mozambique gives rise to optimism. Not least, Opoku says, the ``people are tired of war.'' They're ready to get on with the peaceful work of rebuilding.

Randall Harshbarger is hoping to build on the still-tentative peace in another part of the world: the West Bank and Gaza Strip. ``Unfortunately, there are no real changes on the ground'' as yet from the Palestinian-Israeli peace accord, he says. ``Our strategy is to work in such a way that doesn't depend on the political settlement,'' he explains.

THE Save the Children programs Mr. Harshbarger directs include ``group guaranteed loans'' to small entrepreneurs, often women who have to brave the opposition of male relatives. He and others emphasize that the organization tries to focus as much on women as on children, recognizing that to help one is to help the other.

One of the $500 loans made possible by the program helped a woman from the Gazan community of Khan Younis buy cooking equipment to expand her snack-food business in the local school. Another woman used the funds to buy clothes in Egypt that she then sold in Gaza at a profit.

``We have a very high rate of repayment,'' says Harshbarger, noting that repayment typically leads to a second loan and a line of credit. While the amount of the loans could seem insignificant to most businessmen, he says, the small bits of capital are helping sow greater economic independence among Palestinians.

Harshbarger adds that ``we're careful to work with any group doing good grassroots work,'' regardless of political stripe. ``We have very positive working relationships with Islamic groups, as well as secular groups,'' he says. He discerns hope even in crowded, turbulent Gaza. The people are energetic and entrepreneurial, Harshbarger says, noting the region's potential for agriculture and small industry.

One of the newer Save the Children field offices, open only since last October, is in Tblisi, Republic of Georgia, in another region pummeled by war. Shelter and emergency medical care are priorities there, says Akram Ali Eltom, director of the Tblisi office. ``We're helping not only children but the elderly, and there are lots of them because of the high life expectancy in the region,'' he says. A harsh winter is making the work even more urgent. Mr. Eltom glances out a window at the unusually snowy Connecticut landscape and comments, ``This is summer compared to there.''

The Save the Children program in Georgia is underwritten by a grant of $18 million from the US Agency for International Development in Washington, Eltom says. The money also covers other programs in the Caucasus region run by other private agencies.

Last year, Save the Children spent nearly $85 million on its programs throughout the world. More than half the needed funds came from individual and corporate donations. Much of the rest was government grants and contracts. Save the Children prides itself on the portion of its funds - more than 80 percent - that go directly to program services, rather than administration and fund-raising.

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