Death, trauma, abuse: Why life is ‘a funeral in slow motion’ for children of war
Wars and conflicts reconfigure lives and landscapes, and children are the worst sufferers. The statistics are numbing. Over 449 million children — or 1 in 6 — were living in a conflict zone in 2021. While images coming from Ukraine and other war zones highlight death and destruction, there is a growing concern about the emotional impact on children, the disabilities wars inflict on them, and the protection and well-being they need in such perilous settings.
Children are often made to fire, maim, and kill, forced to walk first on minefields to ensure the safety of adult soldiers. The children, particularly girls, have to endure abuse and sexual violence, putting them through untold trauma.
The protection of children in armed conflicts is the focus of a two-day international conference the Norwegian government — which has a long history of playing the role of a mediator and negotiator in many conflict settings — is hosting in Oslo. The conference began on Monday (June 5).
Hosted jointly by the Norwegian Government, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the UN, and Save The Children, the conference will also address the plight of children associated with armed groups and armed forces.
During my humanitarian missions, I have come across several children who are victims and survivors and, at times, who are forced to fight on the frontline. A few missile strikes are all it takes to distort the image of children — from someone who is carrying a school bag, playing football or just having a stroll with friends to those fleeing terror, often separated from families, friends, and pets and in crowded ill-equipped refugee camps.
During a humanitarian mission to the war-torn Mazar-i-Sherif in Afghanistan several years ago, I met Abdul. The 16-year-old boy carried a rusted AK-47 and spoke softly. He lost his parents in an explosion. He was too young to figure out why. Someone gave the school dropout a machine gun. The Taliban were no longer in power in Kabul in 2003. The war was over. That meant there was no “job” for Abdul who used to be a young “fighter”.
Abdul kept his AK-47, his only possession as he called it. He would fire a few shots into the air to celebrate a wedding in the neighborhood or a birthday and earn a few Afs, the Afghan currency, and a meal. Later, I often wondered what happened to Abdul and his dream to become a pilot. And the other children of someone else’s war.
If all children living in conflict and war zones lived in one country, it would be the third most populous country in the world — a “Republic of War” in perpetual protection crisis and an unending saga of suffering from the trauma they have endured. Africa had the highest number of children impacted by conflict (180 million), followed by Asia (152 million), and the Americas (64 million). The Middle East was home to the highest number of children — one in every three — living in conflict areas.
Girls in conflict
According to the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, an umbrella organisation of humanitarian agencies, girls represent 6–50% of children associated with armed forces and groups. However, only a fraction of girls are formally identified and released. The longer the conflict, the higher are the chances of recruitment of girls to conflicts, often through abduction, forced marriage, and false promises. Girls may be forced to marry fighters, putting them at the risk of exploitation and abuse. Children born of sexual violence add stigma. Some families use child marriage as a “protective” measure against abduction.
Children who have lost mobility are often more prone to psychosocial challenges. The mother of a teenager I met in Afghanistan told me that land mines wiped out both her child’s legs, stopping him from playing football, his favorite sport. It was not easy for him to engage in play, attend schools or engage in other activities that make a child a child. She told me that a war is often a funeral in slow motion.
There is no suffering left in hell. It is all in the minds and lives of children impacted by war and violence. In the early days of the Ukraine war, in the relative comfort of a temporary reception centre in Galati, on the Ukraine–Romania border, seven-year-old Anna arrived with her mother Sofia and grandmother after fleeing bombs in Odesa, their hometown. Anna has stopped talking. The child speaks only in her sleep, Sofia told me, and hugs her mother close. Anna witnessed explosions and death back in Odessa — scenes a child should never see. She is also upset because they couldn’t bring Sheyla, her pet dog, along with them. Anna used to sing in a choir in Odessa Opera House, her grandmother — also an artist — told me proudly.
The United Nations identifies six grave violations against children during war: killing and maiming, recruitment or use of children as soldiers, sexual violence, abduction, attacks against schools or hospitals, denial of humanitarian access. A UNICEF report shows an average of 71 verified grave violations against children every day between 2016 and 2020. For every reported and verified violation, there are several other possible unreported cases. Ending the six grave violations is key.
The protection of children and their well-being should be a top priority in war and conflict settings. Wars and children should never be together. The conference will hopefully inspire donors to commit resources to address child protection, their well-being, and lifesaving needs, as well as invisible needs such as emotional care and support. In a world that spent over $1.2 trillion on military expenditure in 2022, this amount will be small change. But it can save lives, save futures, and build more healthcare centres, schools, and playgrounds for children. Children like Abdul may then turn to football, their favourite sport.
(Unni Krishnan is a physician by training and is associated with Plan International as its Global Humanitarian Director)