Hope
for Healing

teddy bear
 
by Kristin McHugh

Even after war ends, children are still in danger.

The list of adversities faced by children in a post-war situation is long: interrupted education, lack of quality health care, and the loss of social interaction, just to name a few. In many cases, the consequences appear well after the conflict ends. read more

children displaced by Kosovo war
Four years after the Kosovo war these children are still displaced from their homes.

In the aftermath, agencies must find creative ways to provide education, healthcare, and psychological development. Among the programs that have found success are three small ones—in Cambodia, Macedonia, and Kosovo—designed to help heal the mind, body, and spirit of war's youngest victims.
 
young men on crutches
The young men, above, have suffered above-knee amputations.

 

Caring for the Physically Disabled

In Cambodia, a country struggling to emerge from three decades of civil war, the physical consequences are unavoidable.

The World Bank estimated in 1999 that nearly 10 percent of Cambodia's population was disabled. Children account for nearly 20 percent of that disabled population. But experts say poor infrastructure makes the actual number of disabled citizens difficult to track.

A countless number of the disabled end up begging for food and money at locations popular with foreigners, like Phnom Penh's central market.

But help is available. Children and adults from all across the country travel to the Kien Khleang Physical Rehabilitation Center near Phnom Penh for free treatment and care. Founded in 1991 by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, the Kien Khleang Center has grown into a multiservice facility for amputees, landmine victims, and persons with a host of other physical disabilities, including polio.

Each month more than 250 patients pass through Kien Khleang. Roughly half are children.
 

War Fosters Polio

On one recent day, a new patient named Soung Chak Chen quietly answered questions about his health. Polio has crippled one of the 14-year-old's legs—part of an epidemic that stems directly from Cambodia's war-torn history. Sitting alone with a physical therapist in Kien Khleang's large rehabilitation room, the boy looked terrified but put on a brave face.

"My parents are in a suburb in Phnom Penh," he said. "I got a neighbor who brought me here. I'm not scared."

Larrie Warren, a program director at the facility, said Soung's affliction is far from uncommon.

The facility no longer sees many children under the age of three with polio, but has seen a sharp increase in the number of polio victims from ages three and up, including adults.

"The number of polio victims in this country is phenomenal," Warren said. "Polio victims are victims of war because of the level of health and nutrition in this country and, more particularly, because it was impossible to have any type of a thorough eradication campaign in Cambodia up until the last few years."

Some of the patients end up in wheelchairs; others are fitted with braces or artificial limbs. All are manufactured to specifications on site. Warren said this comprehensive approach is the key to Kien Khleang's success.

"No other center in the country does prosthetic work, orthodic work, full physical physiotherapy, and produces and distributes prescribed wheelchairs," Warren said.

The center's wide range of treatment may not be obvious to the young patients playing a spirited game of wheelchair basketball, but it is clear that the care they are getting allows them to experience the joys of youth instead of watching from the sidelines.
 
a little girl being fitted with a brace
A young girl with scoliosis is fitted for the first time with a brace at Kien Khleang.

Kien Khleang
The Kien Khleang Physical Rehabilitation Center, located in a serene compound just outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is the largest overseas humanitarian project of Veterans International, a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

The center, which includes a dormitory for patients and their families, provides a variety of medical options for amputees, landmine victims, and persons with a host of other physical disabilities including polio, scoliosis, and congenital deformities. In addition to medical treatment, Kien Khleang builds wheelchairs, crafts custom prosthetic devices, and braces and produces a range of artificial feet. Nearly one-third of Kien Khleang's production employees are themselves disabled.

"Our goal is to enhance the quality of life of any patient, person that comes to us," said Veterans International Cambodia Director Larrie Warren. "There are various ways to do that. They key to it all is mobility. Many of the children who come to us completely lack mobility. In the worst cases they need a wheelchair. Hopefully we can do better and can put a child who has never walked or who hasn't walked in quite sometime walking again."

playing wheelchair basketball
Wheelchair basketball is part of the regular schedule of activities at Kien Khleang.

 

Gaining Control

Mending the physical scars of child war victims is crucial, but so is teaching them new, positive ways to interact with others.

Psychiatrist Anica Kos knows firsthand the challenges of recovering from war. A Jewish child during World War II, Kos now draws on her own childhood experiences to help children of modern-day conflicts pick up the pieces of their own shattered lives.

"You can reach children in primary schools," she said. "And those children, if they are helped and empowered, very often they become therapists, literally, for their family members.

"This is important, because when the war happens to you, you feel like a victim and you feel helpless. But if you can control part of your life—for instance, your school life—then it means you have some power and it is improving the coping capacities of children."
 

Training for Tolerance

In Macedonia, the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) hopes tolerance will spread the seeds of peace.

Macedonia's transition from Yugoslav republic to nationhood was relatively peaceful. But tensions between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians erupted into a full-scale conflict in 2001. NATO helped broker a peace accord, but divisions still linger. Macedonian schools remain, for the most part, segregated. Ethnic Albanian and Macedonian students may attend the same school but they generally study in separate classrooms.

Yet ethnic Albanian and Macedonian students have come together in the same classroom at a primary school in the capital, Skopje. They participated in an after-school activity that is part of UNICEF's local peace education program. A recent lesson entitled "Same, Alike, Different" explored the similarities and differences between the two ethnic groups.

"It is very, very possible—almost certain—that these children who learn in Macedonian and Albanian separate classes would never spend any time in a classroom together, let alone speaking and doing activities jointly," said UNICEF project officer Elena Misik.

"The activity deals with self-expression, with one's expression of one's own desires and wishes. And also with the awareness that we are all unique human beings."

UNICEF's expanded peace education program is currently operating in seven schools throughout Macedonia. And if the excitement of this class is any indication, school-based tolerance programs could be successful tools in the slow and difficult task of rebuilding any nation torn apart by war.
 
children drawing
Albanian and Macedonian students study in the same classroom in Macedonia's capital, Skopje. Normally segregated, students from the two ethnic groups pictured here are studying a lesson entitled "Same, Alike, Different."
"...when the war happens to you...you feel helpless."

 

Musical Therapy

Child psychiatrist Anica Kos said healing a child's spirit is also vital to recovery.

"If you go through war, you encounter so many bad things, your vision of humanity is destroyed. You see everything as bad," she said. "So it is important to provide children with proof that there are still good people in this world. I think this is the most important—much more important than all psychologists and psychiatrists."

Children in Gjkove, Kosovo, have seen both the best and worst humanity has to offer. Those living in Slovene Village, a transit shelter camp on the outskirts of town, have all lost a family member during Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing drive and the subsequent NATO bombing campaign that ended the Kosovo war of 1999.

Once a week these children gather in their camp's cold and decaying recreation center to forget the horrors of war.

They are participants in the Shropshire Music Foundation's singing and harmonica program. Founded in 1999 by Los Angeles composer and music teacher Liz Shropshire, the program uses music to teach children valuable skills in a nonthreatening environment.

"We're not just teaching kids how to sing songs," Shropshire said. "We are teaching them how to read rhythms, how to read notes, how to clap the rhythms.... They're using parts of their brains that they've never used before."

Burim Vraniqi, a Shropshire graduate and now a 21-year-old volunteer, leads the weekly Slovene Village harmonica class.

"The music is something like magic," he said. "They didn't have this activity before.... Now they are talking about the music. Now they don't have time to talk about the wartimes."

More than 4,000 children in the Gjkove area have benefited from the Shropshire Music Foundation's therapy program since 1999.

"Music is amazing," Shropshire said. "It goes all the way down in your soul. When you are playing an instrument or singing, everything you have is going into that ... and that's why this program could work here. Unfortunately, there are many places that need these programs."

The Shropshire Foundation, UNICEF's peace education program in Macedonia, and the Kien Khleang Physical Rehabilitation Center in Cambodia are only three examples of the thousands of conflict and post-conflict aid programs for children around the globe. Although each one works in a different cultural and political environment, all three operate with the simple goal of empowering children.

Child psychiatrist Kos said this empowerment is key to recovery for child war victims.

"It's very important to involve them in activities," she said. "But bringing children together, not just to talk about reconciliation, but somehow to experience that the person from the other side can be trusted."
 
"If you go through war, you encounter so many bad things, your vision of humanity is destroyed. You see everything as bad."
children singing
Children still displaced by the Kosovo war sing in a weekly music class at Slovene Village.

All photos by Kristin McHugh and Keith Porter.

"The music is something like magic."

 

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