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Responding to Trauma Through Art - 2003-11-05

Young people who have lived through war in Bosnia and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States are responding to the trauma through artwork.

Nermina Nuhodzic is an 18-year-old photographer from Bosnia-Herzegovina. She spent several years of her childhood living through civil war. Twenty-two members of her family were killed over the course of two nights. Now, she spends time walking the streets of her city, taking pictures of the changing lives of people in Sarajevo. One of her photographs shows an elderly woman hunched down on the side of the street, begging. Two young women are passing by, talking happily. They don't seem to notice the older woman.

Ms. Nuhodzic says she shot the picture spontaneously, but it shows a deeper rift between the past and future, a story that is not being told about recovering from war. "I grew up as a child in a war and lived as a refugee many years outside of Bosnia, and then I came back and I feel like I'm not heard enough," she says. "That the people don't know what happened to the kids that grew up in this cruel war, and nobody actually did care."

A collection of her black-and-white photographs is on display along with artwork from other children and teenagers in Sarajevo, Lukavica and New York, in a show called "Aftershocks: Art and Memoirs on Growing Up in the Aftermath."

Elana Haviv heads the Children's Creative Movement for Education, which organized the programs to encourage children to express themselves. She says the project began almost two years ago in Sarajevo, in an attempt to bring together children of war. "The kids came to us and said, 'Can we please talk to you about our past. Nobody listens to us. The journalists left. We were left behind. We're having a really hard time in life right now. And we want to be heard. And we want to explain our past and we want to talk about who we are and the future that is before us.'"

Part of the project focuses on journals and memoirs written by eight teenagers living in Lukavica. The young people write about who they are, and what they miss.

Kate Chumley, who heads the Lukavica program, says she sees a common theme in the writings. "Everybody who knows anything about the war knows how it ripped families apart and how it uprooted people," she says. "And that's present in all of this work -- loneliness, a sense of isolation, a sense of real confusion about what the future holds."

The show combines the Bosnian teens' work with that of American young people who witnessed or were affected by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001.

The U.S. project began when the children returned to schools, two weeks after the collapse of the famous twin towers. The young New Yorkers exchanged letters with children from Sarajevo, and attended peace workshops and special art classes.

One drawing was completed by several young Americans and shows both towers intact, as an airplane is getting ready to crash into the south tower. One of the youths drew sets of eyes in the background, depicting expressions of shock, sadness and anger to reflect the range of emotions New Yorkers felt on that day.

Ms. Haviv says the artwork shows the differences that exist between a short traumatic event and an extended period of conflict. "The work that we did with the New York kids was very raw, from the moment. It wasn't pre-thought, pre-sketched pre-planned. Our work in Bosnia, there was more time to think about things," says Ms. Haviv. "Although there's a lot of raw expression in the work, they are still creating a piece. So there was more time and more tension."

Eleven-year-old Anna De La Cruz participated in the project. Her brother was walking into the Pentagon just as the plane struck it on September 11, and survived. She says the experience, and learning about the Bosnian children's struggles, changed her. "I never thought of war and really didn't appreciate that many things. I took a lot of things for granted," she says. "I didn't know how much they were suffering until that happened to us, and I think that was just something we learned from each other."

Many of the children say that by expressing their feelings through art, and by seeing the artwork from other young people, they've been able to build hope for the future.