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Children getting lost in the horror of war

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Five-year-old Blerina lost her parents and her brother before arriving at Pristina's main hospital with an arm broken by a bullet or a grenade fragment.

Doctors said Wednesday the bone will heal. But the future is less certain for Blerina and thousands of other children caught up in Kosovo's war."Every war is a war against the child," said Michelle Stratford of the aid group Save the Children. "If you wanted an example of a conflict where this is true, you only have to look here, where 60 percent of the population is children. If you've got a situation where civilians are being targeted, you're targeting children."

Blerina and her teenage brother fled their home in Prizren when Serb police set it on fire. She doesn't know what happened to her parents, and of her brother she can say only, "He got lost."

She then was alone -- for how long nobody knows -- until strangers found her and brought her to Pristina University Hospital in May.

Doctors and nurses said she arrived with her right arm broken, perhaps by a bullet or a grenade fragment. Blerina says she was shot by a police officer in a blue uniform, the color worn by Serbia's provincial police.

She could not say where or when that happened, or even what her last name is.

Save the Children took on Blerina's case Wednesday, adding her to a computer database of at least 140 children separated from their families during the conflict.

There are few other clues to her background, except that she is ethnic Albanian. The Serb doctors who first cared for her at the Pristina hospital have fled. Now she's being cared for by ethnic Albanian doctors and nurses, who say they don't want to take her home for fear she will only grow used to a place she may soon have to leave.

She sleeps on a cot in the orthopedic ward's nursing station at night, and by day she wanders the halls -- visiting patients, doctors, the British soldiers patrolling the grounds as part of the peacekeeping force.

She seems safe and happy now. But Lynn Ngugi, head of Save the Children's family tracing project in the Balkans, said returning children to their parents or other relatives is crucial. Everything else -- food, shelter, rebuilding a sense of security and normalcy -- flows from that, she said.

"It's a child's right to be protected, and that protection is better offered in a family situation," Ngugi said.

Even as Save the Children seeks to reunite families, others could be wrenched apart as news of peace prompts thousands of refugees to return to Kosovo. Ngugi said children are particularly at risk in the flurry of packing and passing through immigration and border checks, where they can easily become separated from their families. Save the Children is driving that message home in leaflets and over loudspeakers at Kosovo's borders.

"Every parent knows they should watch their children," she said. "But people are in distress, they're being ordered around. Sometimes they just forget."