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"Do you want to learn an American game?" I ask Kimete. She jumps up from the mat and takes my hand, and we head outdoors. It feels good to get outside. Within moments, a handful of other children are tagging along as we look for a bit of open ground to play in. There is none.
On the other side of the wire fence, though, is a rare patch of green and a few shade trees. With my little band of children in tow -- at least 30 of them now -- I ask one of the Macedonian soldiers if he'd let us go on the other side of the fence to play. Warily, he lets us through, though he keeps his hand on his gun.
I find myself looking around for anything that could be used for a game. A stone. A stick. A bottle cap. A rubber band. A bobby pin. I teach them Duck Duck Goose, then Mother May I and Red Rover, acting out the rules I can't explain in words. Kicking aside the old condoms and sanitary napkins that litter the ground, we clear a spot for Musical Chairs, substituting the children's shoes for chairs to sit on. I study the shoe one small boy has donated for use in the game -- it's several sizes too big, the leather stiff and cracked, the laces long gone. Another girl wears a pair of women's high heels. Several wear rubber boots; others, plastic flip-flops.
Because we need music for the game, I ask the children watching on the sidelines to sing. They choose a patriotic Kosovo tune, while a half dozen of the younger children march in a circle, waiting for the music to stop.
The sun is blazing hot here, but nobody seems to mind. They are giggling and dancing, and even those who get eliminated take the disappointment well. Their faces, while they're playing, could be the faces of my own children when they played this same game at their birthday parties. Here, though, we have no ice-cream cake and favors. Only my little bag of Gummi Bears, just enough for every child to receive two when the game is over.
When I take out the candy, the crowd of children goes wild, reaching and grabbing. I try the honor system, but many who have already collected their Gummi Bears start coming back for more. Some, like Kimete, sit quietly and don't even try for the candy. Others push and elbow younger children away. One boy punches another. One girl begins to cry.
I put my hand above my head to quiet the group. "Hold on, hold on," I say, putting the candy back in my bag. The children sit down again. "Does fighting ever work?" I ask. Nobody says a word. They just shake their heads. No, it does not.
NOT WITHOUT HER PARENTS
I soon make friends with another girl, the same age as Kimete. Makfirete is less exuberant and outgoing, slower to smile, perhaps because one of her two front teeth is turning brown and rotting away. She and her family were in hiding for ten months before they finally made it to the border. It has been a very long time since she slept in a bed or went to school -- though the last vestiges of some pink polish are still faintly visible on her fingernails.
Unlike Kimete, Makfirete escaped Kosovo in the company of her parents and her two older brothers. At the Macedonian border, they were put in a temporary holding camp, which was terribly crowded and disorganized. Refugees came in by the thousands every day, and everyone slept outside.
Then, she says, "My mother got sick. She went to the Red Cross tent, and they took her away. Before we knew what was happening, they put her on a bus. My father saw them take her away and ran after them. He jumped on the bus. The bus drove away." And Makfirete was brought here -- without them.
That was several weeks ago. Makfrete has not seen her parents since, although she says that one night, in the tent where she stays in the care of an aunt, an uncle, some cousins, and her two brothers, she heard a report on the radio that mentioned her father's name. It said her father was looking for his three children, and that he was staying in a smaller camp called Radusha, about 20 miles from here. "I know my parents will find me," she says, though she is afraid she might be moved, to another camp or worse, out of the country altogether. As bad as things are here, she won't leave until her parents come for her.
I bring Makfirete with me to Kimete's tent and ask the girls if they've ever made paper dolls. "I'll show you," I say. I draw Kimete first, careful to include her ponytail. After I cut out the doll, I lay her on another piece of paper and outline her body for a dress. Kimete may own no more than two T-shirts and a single pair of sweatpants, but the paper-doll Kimete can wear anything she wants.
What color, I ask,
fanning out the markers. She chooses blue. I show her how we could put
flowers on her dress, or ruffles, or pockets, or buttons in the shape
of hearts. Kimete claps her hands. She wants all those things. Long sleeves
or short, I ask. She wants short sleeves, with a little lace at the edges.
And where should the dress come to? I point to a spot just above the paper
doll's knees, or another lower down, around her ankles.
THE DREAM THEY ALL SHARE
One morning, I take Makfirete -- and Kimete, who comes with me everywhere now -- to find someone who might help her locate her parents. Everywhere I look, refugees are lined up -- outside the Doctors Without Borders tent, the UNICEF tent, the Red Cross tent, and the many tents where lists are posted daily, announcing the names of the few who have been selected to be sent to a host country. Nobody knows whose name will come up, or when, or which unfamiliar place they will travel to. Or even if they should rejoice or weep. Getting sent away will probably lead to better living conditions and the possibility that a family might begin to make a home. But nobody here really wants to go to a new country. If there is a single dream they all share, it is this one: to return to Kosovo.
We spend hours moving from tent to tent, asking for someone who might have a list of people looking for children. "How do we reach the camp at Radusha?" I ask half a dozen relief workers. "Are there phones? Is there a list of names?"
Finally, a man at the U.N. High Commission on Refugees tent agrees to take down Makfirete's name and the names of her parents and promises to contact someone at Radusha. I hand a pen and a piece of paper to Makfirete so she can write down the names. She freezes. She holds the pen and the paper a long time, then shakes her head. As a fourth grader back in Kosovo, she surely knew how to write, once. But now, she cannot write a single word. She hands the pen back, and the man writes the names for her.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Like the other foreign journalists here, I have been arriving at the camp early in the morning, then returning to the gate in late afternoon to go back to my hotel. On the third day, I know I don't want to do that anymore. I want to spend a night here. Hearing that I'm sleeping over, Kimete hugs me and strokes my arm. "You. Me," she says, acting out the motions for sleep, then patting her heart.
By now, I've learned the family's routine. At 7:30 A.M., a man stops by the tent with loaves of bread for breakfast. Hasmir or Fexhrie or Vahide lays out a strip of cloth that marks the eating place, and we gather around. One of the women passes out pieces of bread -- and a piece of chocolate for me, because I'm the guest -- which we dip in a tin filled with thick yogurt. Another improvised serving dish holds chopped-up cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes. There may be a single tin of processed meat or canned mackerel, too, but only sometimes. We'll eat the same meal at the end of the day. If somebody has come into possession of a precious tin of coffee, they'll brew up a pot, and everyone will sip it quietly, to make the moment last.
Someone always manages to find a copy of the newspaper, to read what's happening back home. But the news is rarely good. The stories from the new arrivals flooding into the camp daily suggest that the situation in Kosovo is steadily worsening. Many refugees tell of hiding for weeks in the woods with no food or shelter. One woman reports that a group of young girls, 12 and 13 years old, were raped outside their homes by Serbian soldiers. "There are no men left in Kosovo except for the very old ones and the little boys," I'm told. "The others have all disappeared."
After breakfast, Kimete and I head to Makfirete's tent. We are going back to the tent where we placed her name on a list yesterday, so now she is very excited, almost skipping as we make our way to the relief workers' tents. When we find the U.N. official we spoke to the day before, he shakes his head. No word. Makfirete becomes quiet again. I kneel next to her and put my arms around her, but her body is tight and rigid. She says she has to go, and returns to her tent.
Back at the tent with Kimete and her cousins, I tell the girls I'll teach them a song from my country. I try "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" first, but there are just too many words in that one. Same with "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Finally I hit on "Kumbaya." The words "Kumbaya, my Lord" are easy enough. I am even able to explain the meaning of the verses: Someone's crying, someone's praying, someone's singing, someone's hoping... The girls like this song so much, we sing it all the way through, three times.
Where does the day go? There is a trip to get water, a trip to watch the buses come in and look for Kimete's parents. Then Kimete tells me she has school every day at 3 PM. We stop by Makfirete's tent to bring her along, though she has never attended the school here before. Still subdued from the morning's disappointment, she reluctantly agrees to join us.
The classroom is a tent set up by UNICEF, with a volunteer -- a refugee himself -- in charge. I ask him if he'd like me to teach a little English. That would be good, he says.
It's stiflingly hot in the tent and very noisy. Only a few of the 40 or so children have pencil or paper. Still, they try to concentrate.
"I live in America," I say "Where do you live?"
"I live in Kosovo," a young boy answers. Then a cloud passes over his face. That is not exactly right and he knows it.
"I come from Kosovo," I suggest.
"I come from Kosovo," he answers. The whole class recites the phrase in unison. As little English as they possess, they have figured out this difference.
I suggest that we write a story together. "Let's make it about a little boy," I begin. "And his name is..."
"Good," I say. "Arban it is. And Arban lives...?"
"With his mother and father!"
"And his little sister, Mimosa...'
"And they are all so happy..."
"They eat spinach pie every night! And peppers! And grilled chicken!"
"He has a bicycle!"
"And a real school."
"What happens next?" I ask.
A dozen hands shoot in the air: "They are listening to the news. They are hearing the NATO bombs outside. Soldiers come pounding on the door. They are wearing helmets and knives and they have long beards. Some of them wear scary black masks with marks painted on their faces."
"What do the soldiers do?" I ask, though the children hardly need prodding to tell this story.
"They laugh and sing while they knock the dishes off the shelves," says one girl.
They say Bill Clinton sends you his best regards."
"Arban's parents run out the door with is little sister, Mimosa, in their arms. They sleep at the bus station in the rain. He asks his parents, 'Where are we going?' But they don't know."
"Now he lives in a tent here in the Stankovich camp. He dreams of going back to Kosovo. Someday he will leave this place and go home again, and forget everything that happened."
"And what does Arban want to be when be grows up?" I ask the children.
They answer almost in a single voice: "A KLA soldier!"
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