Ivan was ten years when I met him outside Bosanski Brod in Bosnia, as a consultant to a home-visiting program organized by the Swedish Save the Children Fund. As many as 80 volunteers participated in a program for visiting refugee families; both those who lived in rented apartments and at regular refugee-camps, in or outside Zagreb.
The main aim of the visiting program was to give the children an opportunity to talk, and encourage them to use writing or by other means to restructure their inner chaos which the war situation had caused.
Ivan’s father had requested me to come to his family, because he had something to tell that he couldn’t talk to anybody else about.He had chosen me because I was a visiting foreign psychologist. When I sat down in the room, Ivan’s father was lying on the sofa and he started immediately to talk. Regardless of the fact that Ivan was sitting four or five metres behind us, in the same room. What he desperately needed to talk about, to confess, was the fact that he had shot his best friend.
They had worked together in the same factory and they played card as mates at the same team. When the city was really separated by the Serbian order to attack, they became Serbs and Bosnians, and they were fighting from house-corner to house-corner. He saw a person move, and fired. Right in front of him his best friend fell, shot through the chest. He described in detail to me how he sat down and cried and shouted “shoot me also, shoot me also”.
When I asked this father if he had talked to his son about this, he shook his head and said that he did not like to talk about such terrible things to minors. When I drew his attention to the fact that Ivan was sitting in this room here and now, he looked bewildered. I asked if Ivan could come over to us. He agreed and Ivan sat down, and it was clear to us that they had a very good relationship. Ivan dryed the tears on his father’s cheeks, hugged him, and the father grabbed his hand and he was sitting there, looking at me.
I asked him: “Ivan, have you heard what we talked about?” He said yes. Then I asked him if he had heard about it before, and he said rather loudly: “Many times.”
How can one talk to a nine-year-old child about the fact that his father shot his best friend? How can I promote this child’s self-understanding? I decided talk as I use to in similar, horrible situations. I introduced the concept of “evil”. How it was possible that so much evil was released in that short time, and he said that he had been thinking a lot about that. I asked him for his own explanation, and he looked right in my eyes and said that “I think they have been poisoned, they have been drinking something that has been poisoning to their brains”. But he suddenly added, ”but now they are all poisoned, so I’m sure it is in the drinking water, and we really have to find out how to clean the polluted water reservoirs.” When I asked him if children were as much poisoned as adults he shook his head and said “no, not at all. They have smaller bodies, so they are not drinking so much, so they are less contaminated, and I have discovered that small children and babies who mostly drink milk, they are not poisoned at all.”
Ivan was a bright boy, and when he wanted to explain to me more about the war, he found his atlas. He showed me the map and the frontlines, and mentioned the name of the leaders and revealed that he was very well informed about certain aspects of the war going on. As a natural question, I asked him if he had ever heard the word politics. He almost jumped and looked at me and said: “Yes. That’s the name of the poison.” Here we see how a restless, researching mind of a 9-year child had struggled to understand war. How he desperately tried to integrate the fact that he himself is a member of a refugee family, and the son of a father who had killed his best friend, a person very well known by Ivan.