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War Children

Bosnian child's art
Give Peace a Chance: One of the few upbeat works drawn by a
Bosnian child as art therapy.

Bay Area volunteers use art to
heal Bosnia's young

By Zack Stentz

There's commitment, and there's commitment. While many arts volunteers give much of themselves to their work, the lengths to which Betsy Blakeslee goes can only be described as extraordinary. The veteran of several trips to war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina, Blakeslee uses art as a method of healing that region's physically and mentally scarred children. Her crusade has exacted a high price, and she has the crutches to prove it.

Did she fall victim to a militiaman sniper's bullet? Come too close to one of the millions of undetonated land mines dotting the countryside? "Nothing that dramatic," she says, hobbling into the room with a warm smile and an easy laugh. "I basically stepped into a hole while I was walking at night in Tuzla."

The second-largest city in government-controlled Bosnia and the site of horrific shelling during the war, Tuzla also serves as headquarters for the American troops assigned to enforce the Dayton peace accords, and fortunately, doctors at the local M.A.S.H. hospital were on hand to patch up their injured countrywoman after her fall.

"They were really wonderful," Blakeslee says of her doctors, before sitting down and showing her interviewer some samples of the art of Tuzla's children. Executed with varying degrees of precision, the drawings range from abstract doodlings of flowers and birds to horrifically realistic scenes from the war they lived through. Mosques being dynamited, dive-bombers strafing cities, children cowering in foxholes--all are scenes Westerners read about in the newspapers or saw on CNN, but somehow pack a greater wallop when refracted through the lens of a child's perspective. "Many of the children I worked with came from Srebrenica," says Blakeslee by way of explanation, referring to the United Nations­declared safe haven overrun by the Bosnian Serb forces in 1995, who forced out Srebrenica's women and children before massacring the adult male inhabitants of the "safe area."

"These kids had their childhoods stolen from them," explains Blakeslee, who is currently pulling the children's art into a book. "And art and theater and music are ways for them to deal with their trauma, and hopefully help to return them to childhood."

Aside from giving art workshops in Bosnia's schools, Blakeslee and other volunteers also participate in a summer camp run each year on the Croatian coast by the Global Children's Organization. There, 100 children and a troupe of international volunteers spend two weeks dancing, singing, painting faces and otherwise getting an intensive dip in the pleasures of childhood so long denied them.

Once at the camp, Blakeslee specializes in musical forms of healing. "Oh, she mainly teaches them easy songs in all different languages, and they really seem to love it," fellow volunteer Judith Jenya says of the song workshops. "It's pretty funny sometimes, listening to a bunch of Muslim kids sing Jewish folk songs."

Walnut Creek businessman John Russell also volunteers at the camp each summer, but rather than teach any one particular skill or art form, he goes to offer general support and comfort to the camp's children. "A lot of what we do is just to let the kids rediscover their childhoods, by taking them out and spoiling them," Russell says. "Once the kids decide they like you, they absolutely won't leave your side, so you'll be walking around with nine or ten kids hanging off of you. You especially see this behavior from the boys who have lost their fathers."

As he raises funds for the camp and lectures on his experiences around the Bay Area, Russell continues to feel connected to the children of Bosnia, and plans on returning next summer. "Betsy wants to do a camp for children in Northern Ireland, and maybe one on the West Bank for Palestinian and Israeli kids, but I think I'll stick with the one in Bosnia," he says.

And if Russell ever feels his commitment flagging, he can always look at his "lucky grenade" for inspiration.

"One kid at the camp said, 'John, I must give you my lucky grenade,' " Russell explains. "And I asked him what he meant, and he told me about a grenade that fell and blew up the boy next to him. 'But it was a lucky grenade,' he told me, 'because it didn't blow me up. It only went into my arm.' So the kid insisted on giving me his good-luck charm, which was the grenade fragment the doctors pulled from his arm. I keep it here on my desk now, to remind me of what those kids have been through."

For information on Betsy Blakeslee's Bosnia project or to volunteer, call 510/253-0462.

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From the December 1996 issue of SF Live

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