How War Devastates Children
THE battle, one of many in Sierra Leone’s civil war, took place in early 1995. As the guns fell silent, four-year-old Tenneh, whose parents had already died in the war, lay wounded. A bullet had lodged in her head, behind her right eye, and there was danger that the bullet would trigger infection that would spread to her brain and kill her.
Sixteen months later, a British couple managed to have Tenneh flown to England for surgery. A team of surgeons removed the bullet, and people rejoiced that the operation was successful, that a young life had been saved. Yet, the rejoicing was muted by the knowledge that Tenneh remained an orphan who should not have been shot at all.
Weapons, Hunger, and Disease
Although Tenneh was hit by a stray bullet, increasingly children are not accidental victims but are targets. When ethnic strife breaks out, killing adults is not enough; the children of the enemy are viewed as future enemies. A political commentator in Rwanda said in a 1994 radio broadcast: “To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats.”
Most children who die in wars, however, are not victims of bombs or bullets but rather of starvation and sickness. In African wars, for example, lack of food and medical services has killed about 20 times more people than actual fighting has. The cutting off of essential supplies is a tactic of war ruthlessly applied in modern times. Armies have sown large areas of food-producing land with land mines, destroyed grain stores and water systems, and seized relief supplies. They have also demolished health centers, scattering medical personnel.
Such tactics hit children the hardest. Between 1980 and 1988, for example, children lost to war-related causes numbered 330,000 in Angola and 490,000 in Mozambique.
No Home, No Family
War creates orphans by killing parents, but it also does so by splintering families. Worldwide, about 53 million people have fled their homes under threat of violence. That is about 1 in every 115 people on earth! At least half are children. In the panic of flight, children are often separated from their parents.
As a result of the conflict in Rwanda, 114,000 children had been separated from their parents by the end of 1994. According to a 1995 survey, 1 child in 5 in Angola had a similar experience. For many children, especially the very young, the trauma of not being with parents is more distressing than the turmoil of war itself.
Killed by Land Mines
Throughout the world hundreds of thousands of children have gone out to play, to herd animals, to collect firewood, or to plant crops, only to be blown apart by land mines. Land mines kill 800 people every month. In 64 countries there is a combined total of about 110 million land mines sown in the ground. Cambodia alone is seeded with about seven million such mines, two for every child.
Over 40 countries manufacture about 340 types of mines in a wide variety of shapes and colors. Some look like stones, others like pineapples, still others like small green butterflies that gently float to the ground from helicopters, without exploding. Reports suggest that some land mines, designed to look like toys, have been put near schools and playgrounds where women and children will find them.
It costs only about $3 to produce an antipersonnel mine, but to locate and remove a mine from the ground costs between $300 and $1,000. In 1993 about 100,000 land mines were removed, but two million new ones were laid. All are patient killers that never sleep, do not distinguish a soldier from a child, recognize no peace treaty, and remain active for up to 50 years.
In May 1996, after two years of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, international negotiators failed to secure a global ban on land mines. Though they did outlaw some types of mines and put restrictions on the use of others, a total ban on land mines will not be reconsidered until the next review conference, scheduled for the year 2001. Between now and then, land mines will kill another 50,000 people and maim 80,000. Many will be children.
Torture and Rape
In recent wars children have been tortured, either to punish their parents or to extract information about their parents. Sometimes, in the savage world of conflict, no reason is needed and torture of children takes place merely for entertainment.
Sexual violence, including rape, is common in war. In the fighting in the Balkans, it was a policy to rape teenage girls and force them to bear the enemy’s child. Similarly, in Rwanda soldiers used rape as a weapon to destroy family ties. In some raids nearly every teenage girl who survived a militia attack was raped. Many girls who became pregnant were rejected by their families and community. Some girls abandoned their babies; others killed themselves.
Children in war often endure experiences more terrible than the worst nightmares of many adults. In Sarajevo, for example, a survey of 1,505 children showed that virtually all had experienced artillery shelling. Over half had been shot at, and two thirds had been in situations where they expected to be killed.
A survey of 3,000 Rwandan children found that 95 percent had witnessed violence and killings during the genocide and that nearly 80 percent had lost family members. Almost one third had witnessed rape or sexual assault and more than one third had seen other children taking part in killings or beatings. Such experiences devastate young minds and hearts. A report on traumatized children from the former Yugoslavia stated: “Memories of the event remain with them . . . causing extreme nightmares, daily intrusive flashbacks of the traumatic events, fear, insecurity and bitterness.” Following the genocide in Rwanda, a psychologist at the National Trauma Recovery Centre reported: “Among the symptoms manifested by children are nightmares, difficulty in concentrating, depression and a sense of hopelessness about the future.”
How Can Children Be Helped?
Many researchers believe that trauma does not go away when children bottle up their feelings and memories. Healing often begins when a child confronts bad memories by talking to a sympathetic and informed adult about what happened. “Half the battle is getting really troubled kids to open up and talk freely,” said a social worker in West Africa.
Another important aid in healing emotional pain is strong unity and support of family and community. Like all children, war victims need love, understanding, and empathy. Yet, is there really reason to believe that there is hope for all children to enjoy a bright future?
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It Looked Like a Ball
In Laos a girl and her brother were on their way to graze buffalo. The girl saw an object in a ditch that looked like a ball. She picked it up and tossed it to her brother. It fell to the ground and exploded, killing him instantly.
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Only One Among Thousands
When fighting began in her area of Angola, Maria, a 12-year-old orphan, was raped and became pregnant. When fighting intensified, Maria fled, walking 200 miles [300 km] to a safe area, where she entered a center for displaced children. Because she was so young, she went into labor early, giving birth with great difficulty to a premature baby. The baby lived only two weeks. Maria died a week later. Maria is only one among thousands of children who have been tortured and raped in recent wars.
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Devastated Minds and Hearts
How children are often affected by violence is well illustrated by eight-year-old Shabana, of India. She saw a mob beat her father to death and then behead her mother. Her mind and heart remain numb, masking the horror and loss. “I do not miss my parents,” she says in a flat, emotionless voice. “I do not think of them.”