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Balkan kids learn to live together at army camp

Special-needs children from the ex-Yugoslavia guests at Swiss army camp

Ninety special-needs children from the ex-Yugoslavia have just attended a Swiss holiday camp where they had rather unusual minders – Swiss army soldiers.

Alongside play, parties and excursions, the annual military-run camp at Glaubenberg in central Switzerland also tends to the medical needs of its young charges.

Approximately 400 Swiss soldiers worked with the campers, including some who had signed up voluntarily.

Brought to Switzerland by the charity swisscor, the children were between nine and 13 years old and hail from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia and Montenegro.

“We want them to have a great time, and also to have a chance to experience peaceful coexistence in action,” Thomas Süssli, commandant of the hospital battalion, said before the start of the two-week camp on August 9.

All activities took place in ethnically mixed groups, with translators at hand to sort out the babble of various tongues. Children slept in “families” based on country of origin.

New friends

“I like it a lot in Switzerland, and I’ve made lots of new friends from other countries,” said Igor Postolov, a Macedonian who praised life at the camp and its activities.

Born with deformities in both hands, Igor draws with a pencil held in his mouth. He also suffers from a genetic condition that makes it difficult to walk more than short distances, and which requires him to taking painkilling medicines.

Igor’s minders, soldier and physiotherapist Edi Muntinga and speech therapist Tanya Boneva, look on as he draws a house with deliberate strokes, before adding red smoke puffing from a chimney and blades of grass.

“I pointed out to him that he is still able to sing, play and write, and all with just two fingers, which is much more difficult than with five, ” said Boneva.

Drawing gives Igor pleasure and he laughs easily.

“The camp rules with their set times for waking up, washing, eating and so on have been very good for the children,” observed Boneva.

Muntinga joked, “Tanya challenges them to be more independent. We spoil them.”

Medical care

Improving the health of the special-needs children, all of who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, is a top priority at Glaubenberg.

Upon arrival each child received a complete medical check-up.

“Between our doctors, carers, minders and physiotherapists, we’re very well-equipped to deal with the children’s medical needs,” said Süssli.

Extensive services were on offer, including dental work, glasses and hearing aids, surgical corsets, prostheses and orthopaedic shoes, in addition to the repair or replacement of wheelchairs.

Training in using new or refitted apparatuses was done in the company of accompanying adults, who will continue to assist the children after they return home.

In addition to the adult helpers, the camp coordinates with local doctors in the ex-Yugoslavia, who will carry on with the treatments started in Switzerland.

Soldiers pleased

The soldiers were clearly enthusiastic about their two-week stint.

“This isn’t one of those abstract exercises, here we’re working with real people. We can take what we learn and apply it. We’re able to see right away if we’ve done it right – that is, if the kids laugh,” commented Pascal Urech.

“The children express their happiness very spontaneously, it’s enormously motivating, ” enthused Joachim Morgenthaler.

But while caring for the children is satisfying and fulfilling, it’s not always easy, said Süssli, the commandant.

“Tending children with so many special needs the whole day long can also be extremely exhausting.”


The holiday camp has taken place since 2000. It is run by the charity swisscor, which was founded at the initiative of the former Swiss cabinet minister, Adolf Ogi.
The camp’s goal is to make it possible for children from crisis regions to enjoy common experiences in Switzerland and to provide them with the necessary medical care.
The children have medium to severe special needs, living in orphanages, foster care, impoverished families or in difficult circumstances.
The cost per child for clothing, toys, excursions and medical care is about SFr1,500 ($1,217).
The defence ministry plans to end army participation in the camp as part of cost-cutting measures.

(Adapted from German by Kathleen Peters)

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