IN a three-story house on a quiet street in Zagreb, Marijana Vukadin runs the Center for Self Help, a place where refugees who escaped the atrocities in Bosnia come to talk, laugh, and try to forget their troubles for a few hours each day.
There aren't many facilities like this in a region ravaged by war, though the needs are great. Should the Balkan war develop into a broader-scale conflict, it would wreak more havoc on people already desperate to keep their lives in place. That is a possibility, given United States support for arming the Croats and Muslims against the ever-belligerent Serbs, and the possible pullout of United Nations peacekeeping forces.
Three-and-a-half years after the war in former Yugoslavia began, the Bosnian Serbs press on toward their goal of ethnic purification by pushing Croats and Muslims from their homes and turning Bosnian towns and villages into Serb strongholds. The fighting has produced Europe's biggest refugee crisis since World War II, as fathers are sent off to war, families land in refugee camps, and children lose their parents.
Croatia is already swollen with war-weary men, women, and children from Bosnia and elsewhere. Government agencies and international relief organizations are working to provide them with basic food, health, and housing services, but their efforts fall severely short of what is needed.
According to the latest government statistics, in Croatia alone there are over 380,000 refugees and displaced persons who have been banished from their homes but remain within the borders of their own country.
They are living in camps, converted military barracks, and ghettoized communities. Many of the residents have been victimized by rape, suffered torture, or were forced to watch their relatives being brutalized and killed. Included are thousands of at-risk youths who were sent away from home. These so-called ''unaccompanied children'' range from infants to teenagers.
Ms. Vukadin, a Croat, has been on something of a crusade to help the constant flow of walk-ins to her Center for Self Help. She provides a refuge for those who desperately need a diversion from their cramped living quarters and their vivid memories of what they left behind.
Thus far, Vukadin has been able to assist 300 people. But like most Croatian social services for war victims, hers operates on a shoestring budget. She has been scrambling to come up with the money to continue her work; the center will run out of funds early next year, she says. It started up in 1993 with a grant from the International Refugee Committee and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). But she says she cannot count on those sources to replenish the money.
Welcome wearing thin
Vukadin leads a visitor into the center, apologizing for the rusting stove and other debris littering the front yard. She rents the building and does not dare pick a fight with the landlord, she says, indicating that she's fortunate to have found the space. International aid workers in Croatia report increasing hostility toward refugees and displaced persons, a problem exacerbated by state budgets that are already too stretched to help the increasing numbers of Croatian poor who find themselves competin g with war victims for resources.
Excited, Vukadin talks quickly as she points out where the toddlers come to play, the colorful artwork plastered all over the stairwells, and rooms used for lectures on foster care and crisis management. Counseling is also offered to the 20 percent of the center's children who are living without their parents.
In a small room set up for lunch, most of the 10- and 11-year-old boys are unruly, but others are completely withdrawn. Slightly agitated with the lack of discipline, Vukadin says: ''You see, they have problems. They are upset from all that they have been through. They either act wild or say nothing at all.'' The center gives them a sense of structure and belonging they have long lacked, she says, as she tries to coax one of the young boys to talk.
Concern about the plight of children prompted the US National Academy of Sciences to host a meeting in Italy earlier this year to hear from Balkan region health professionals who have been trying to counter the effects of war. In a report just released by the academy, these professionals portrayed a dismal situation: ''The majority of children living in the countries of the former Yugoslavia seem to be at risk of mental health problems.'' Problems are particularly acute in Bosnia and Croatia, where most
of the war has been waged.
The report also details future risks, some as simple and dangerous as the known and hidden caches of war materials that are widely strewn about.
''Children stumble on them and use them as toys when they find them. Indeed, children in most areas of the former Yugoslavia are playing war games,'' according to the report. The unexploded mines, bombs, grenades, and mortars that cover the land will pose hazards to children for years to come, the academy's report warns.
On the top floor of Vukadin's center next to the kitchen where people appear to be in perpetual motion is a room full of women and children who are busy knitting, creating new designs for weavings, and talking softly. Many of them come every day; some stay all day.
''Most come from villages, and they don't know how to read or write,'' Vukadin says. Svietlana, a teenager from central Bosnia, has been living in Zagreb for the past year without her parents. She is shy, but eventually says that she considers the center home. She has clearly developed a strong relationship with one of the center's staff members.
When the war was raging in the spring of 1992, youths were taken out of the danger zones in buses, trucks, and private cars. The more fortunate were whisked off by plane to safety in foreign countries. While most of the evacuation was organized, some was haphazard and the entire effort was performed by frantic people acting fast. As a result, the documentation of these thousands of moves is poor or nonexistent.
Of the war's refugees, the youths are the most disoriented, says Adalbert Rebic, head of Croatia's Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees. The latest tabulations for his country, he says, reveal that over 4,000 refugee children are unaccompanied -- a large percentage of whom stay with aunts and uncles, or live in hotels and camps.
In many cases, there are up to eight family members living in one room. ''I have had so many complaints from so many people -- that reading is impossible. There is no space to concentrate. Half the people sleep one night, the other half the next,'' Mr. Rebic says.
Rebic says that hundreds of the children have no contact with their parents, although most know where their parents are -- usually hours away in refugee camps beyond impassable checkpoints or far off where there is persistent sniper fire, if not all-out fighting.
Children without parents
Many live in foster homes, where family sponsors are paid a state stipend. But for the most part, foster families bring little experience to their caretaking responsibilities, and the children in their charge have undergone tremendous stress. Others exist in a vacuum, perhaps as lone family members in a refugee camp, or placed in foster care in a remote village. Many are living abroad.
Sasha Selak-Zivkovic, who directs the Project for Unaccompanied Children in Exile based in Zagreb, says there are roughly 30,000 Balkan war children living without their parents in 31 countries and Bosnia. Ms. Selak-Zivkovic works with government agencies and volunteer organizations around the world to identify, register, and document these youth.
''We're finding out that they live everywhere. We were surprised, for example, to find 1,000 unaccompanied minors coming back from Libya [an Islamic country which took particular interest in the safety of Muslims] to Bosnia,'' she says. There is so little data on the total number of children who are currently separated from their parents that estimates run wild, from 10,000 and up worldwide.
Reconnecting mothers and fathers with their offspring has proved to be one of the most dramatic achievements in the war. The UNHCR's Mr. Khezry has reunited over 70 children with their parents during the past year. To do so, he must often have face-to-face meetings with both parties, document their claims, and work his way through a complicated legal web that creates barriers along the way. The effort is a combination of detective work, social aid, and shrewd negotiating with reluctant authorities.
One of his recent cases involved a Bosnian mother who approached the UNHCR for help in locating her son. Khezry found the boy in Serbia, who, to support himself, had spent the past two years digging graves with a man who took him in. ''It was extremely difficult to move through the borders,'' Khezry says.
''When we bring the kids to their parents, they often don't want to go,'' Khezry says, explaining that when they were separated the children were often too young to remember their mothers and fathers. Earlier this month, after a very trying effort to put a young boy in his father's care, the child refused to budge at a military checkpoint. ''He was frightened by the soldiers, the tanks, and the dad he didn't recognize. 'Who are you?' he asked defiantly.''
Often the child is a product of an ethnically mixed marriage that broke up during the war. ''We literally do not know whom to send the child to -- and it's a very volatile situation,'' Khezry says.
Searching by radio, computer
The search process goes from the laborious to the high-tech. Since March, US-based Electronic Data Systems, in conjunction with the UNHCR, has been making up a refugee profile based on information and photographs collected from the field and puts together a CD-ROM disk for desktop computers in refugee-aid offices.
Rebic credits his government with an effective community outreach. ''We have a strong network working here.'' State radio, for example, has a channel that devotes an hour of its broadcast every morning to refugees and displaced persons, ''where they ask for each other, they call to each other,'' he says.
The Croatian government spends more than $500 million a year to provide housing, food, health services, and elementary education for the refugees and displaced persons. It has also drawn on international aid, amounting to roughly $60 million for the past three years combined.
At Hrvatsko Narodno Uciliste, Croatian military barracks converted into a camp for displaced persons, large families live in typically cramped quarters. The residents are from Vukovar, an area of Croatia overrun by the Serbs. Many of these now displaced people who have been in the converted barracks for as long as three years came directly from Serb prison camps.
From the lobby of the main building, people can hear a woman on the second floor in distress. As she makes her way down the stairs, she begins to sob. Passersby appear familiar with this scene, even sympathetic, but no one tries to comfort her. It seems impossible to get away from the misery.
''They saw people die, they saw their town destroyed. They can't come back to Vukovar, yet they are thinking every day about going home,'' says Gordana Kovac, who often visits her cousins at this center. ''In the beginning we had hope and we believed we were returning. Now all people can think about is how blue they are. We can't live like this anymore. Most people are having real problems. Yet there are many places like this in Zagreb and all over Croatia.''
Rebic confirms this. ''Our biggest problem today is our accommodation -- we have exhausted it,'' he says. ''And we get 40 new refugees and displaced persons a day -- the burden of taking care of them is an exploding bomb for Croatia, given the strains on the population and the economy.'' After military spending, which is 18 percent of the Croatian budget, social-welfare outlays, including money for refugees and displaced persons, ranks second at 7 percent.
That financial squeeze is felt at the Home for Children in Zagreb, where newborns to high-school-age children live off of the meagre assistance the state has to offer. These are Croatian youth who have been given up by their parents; many will serve out their juvenile years at an institution. These and other needy Croatian citizens top the state's social-welfare priority list. If little is being done for them, government aid is most inadequate for refugees.
''In war, money goes to weapons, and social workers are not able to do their work,'' says Dunia Curuvija, who has worked at the home for the past 15 years. ''Nobody's taking care of children, and delinquency is growing,'' she says, adding that the needs for social help are ever-increasing. ''Parents, who are under a lot of stress, don't have the time or resources to care for their young and more and more children are abused.''
Rebic says the social and economic burden of caring for the refugees and displaced is more than his country can bear.
''There is more and more pressure to send refugees to third countries,'' he says. International aid donors are sharply critical of Rebic for repatriating people to danger zones such as Sarajevo -- people who have gone back willingly as well as those who have been forced.
Most of the refugees who leave former Yugoslavia go to other European countries relatively close by. Germany houses 350,000 refugees, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden 40,000 each, and Norway has taken in 16,000.
Far fewer numbers go to the United States. For Bosnian refugees, ''there are two ways to get to the US,'' says Michael Kocher, director of the US Resettlement Office of the International Rescue Committee in Zagreb.
One is to get a referral from the UNHCR, which looks to vulnerable groups, such as ex-detainees, rape victims and couples in mixed marriages who are not accepted by any religious, ethnic, or national group. The second is to have relatives in the US. In both instances, the IRC must document the refugee's persecution story and explain why he or she fears to return home.
Then, an often lengthy application process begins with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Some 90 percent of the applicants go through. But even then, wives, husbands, siblings, and children get left behind.
''It's a rare family that leaves here intact,'' says Mr. Kocher. ''Most come out in bits and pieces.''