Ignorance, violence, illness and social upheaval have produced a lost generation. Children that are lost in their own Countries, scared and vulnerable and unable to say or do anything to protect themselves.
A United Nations report recently published found harrowing results of Children in Afghanistan living in fear each day. The rates of malnutrition, disease and death among Afghan children rank among the highest in the World and in addition many injuries due to land mines and artillery leave them particularly vulnerable. Over 80% of Afghan Children interviewed revealed some psychological scars of war.
Graca Machel, the General Secretary and expert on the subject of Children living within conflict is also the former Minister of education in Mozambique. He produced ‘The Impact of Armed conflict on Children’ report on behalf of the UN.
“Millions of Children are caught up in conflicts in which they are not merely bystanders but targets” Machel states. “Some fall victim to general onslaught against civilians, others die as part of calculated genocide. Still other Children suffer the effects of sexual violence or the multiple deprivations of armed conflict that expose them to hunger or disease. Just as shocking is that thousands of young people are cynically exploited as combatants”
According to the UN report in the past decade 2 million children have been killed in armed conflict in Afghanistan alone, three times as many have been seriously injured or permanently disabled and countless others have been forced to witness or even take part in horrifying acts of violence.
In addition more children are being deliberately recruited as combatants around the world. This has been made easier by proliferation of light weapons. Assault rifles are cheap and widely available thanks to the international arms trade.
In Uganda an AK-47 can be purchased for the cost of a chicken. The more dangerous weapons used to be heavy or complex but these guns are so simple to use that children can use them without any difficulty. They are so simple that they can be stripped and reassembled by a child as young as ten.
“War violates every right of a child”. Machel continues. “The Right to life, the right to live with family and within a community, the right to health, the right to their development and the right to be nurtured and protected”.
The same UN report prepared 24 case studies from around Afghanistan and Pakistan that indicated that rebel armies have recruited tens of thousands of children as child soldiers. Most are adolescent boys but some are girls, aged ten or younger.
Most child soldiers are forcibly recruited, seized from the streets and form their schools or orphanages where they thought they were safe. But others are driven to join from fears of poverty or believing it is the only way to achieve protection from the violence around them. They think it’s a way to be sure of regular meals, clothing and medical attention that we in the Western world take for granted.
They are then forced to commit atrocities against their own families as a way of severing all ties with their loved ones.
At the age of ten child soldiers start out in support services. Boys are used as porters or messengers and the girls prepare food, attend to wounds and are more often forced to provide sexual favours. It’s also very common for the girls to be ‘married off’ to other soldiers. They are then only a couple of years later forced into the battlefield, vulnerable, inexperienced and unaware of the real dangers. Accidents are common for Child soldiers; they are expectedly scared and naive, often resulting in forgetting to take cover from gunfire or missiles and endangering the lives of themselves and other soldiers.
In a separate report published in 2008 a woman from Honduras spoke to the United Nations about her childhood.
“At the age of 13 I joined the student movement. I had a dream to contribute and to make things change so that children would not be hungry. Later I joined the armed struggle. I had all the inexperience and fears of a little girl. I found that girls were obliged to have sexual relations ‘to alleviate the sadness of the combatants’. At my young age I experienced the pain of illegal abortion. In spite of my commitment they abused me”.
It’s a common fact that a girl’s recruitment may lead to sex slavery yet millions of girls around the world are being recruited as child soldiers in conflict zones, either through kidnap, by choice or are being forced to by their parents.
This year’s UN report not only focuses on the needs of girl child soldiers who have been slaughtered, raped, maimed, stoned to death and just exposed to extreme brutality but of the boys who have become lost in war. The report has called for a global campaign to stop the recruitment of anyone under 18 and to reintegrate child soldiers back into society.
The issue of Child soldiers may be a common one but it is not the only threat among Children in conflict zones. Millions of children are forced to flee into neighbouring countries as refuges or have been internally displaced within their own countries which is proving to have deadly consequences. These children are uprooted and exposed to danger and insecurity away from their friends and family and everything that is familiar to them.
Up to 70% of displaced people are children in Pakistan, estimates now put the amount of people displaced by the conflict between the Taliban and Government forces of Pakistan at more than 2 million.
In Cambodia UNICEF recently discovered that refugee families had temporarily adopted unaccompanied children in order to obtain additional supplies only to abandon these children once they returned to Cambodia These children were left alone and isolated without their own family.
Even more startling is that in Bosnia and Herzegovina some evacuations of children had been organised by groups intent on profiting from adoption markets.
While the children who are refugees benefit from the attention of international organisations, those who are displaced internally have less protection and are often at a greater risk. The UN report proposes ‘Family tracking’ it has proved to be successful in the past but is only used for refugees. Children that are internally displaced will now also benefit from the procedure.
In May Plan released a report of the children who fled the fighting in the Bunar region of Pakistan. Most of them fled their homes with few possessions and made long hazardous journeys to the refugee camps or to stay with relatives, some didn’t make it and were subjected to violence on their journey.
Plan has launched an emergency appeal within Pakistan. Through their report they spoke to children from the Bunar region.
Sawaira is 8 years old; she loves studying and misses school. She would very much like to return to school in Bunar but is scared to go back as she fears she may be killed. Her favourite subject is Islamiyat (religious education) and she is desperate for the refugee camp that she is staying in to start lessons.
“We left our home because of the fighting” she says. “There were loud bangs and we were all shouting and crying”.
Sawaira still relives the experiences in her head especially at night where she sees the flashes in her dreams. It is difficult to stop this little girl from crying and she always runs to her fragile looking Mother for comfort.
Abdullah is 15, he and his family arrived at a refugee camp after a long and difficult trek, sometimes they were at great risk.
He too experiences flashbacks from the trauma that he was witness to but is reluctant to share his worries. “All the people here are very much helpless and their condition is very pathetic” he says.
He admits he feels hapless about the situation and misses school and worries everyday about missing his studies as he wants to be a lawyer when he’s older.
“I don’t want to be here. I want to go home at all costs; I want the situation to get better quickly so that I can go back”.
Women and Girls are at a Great Risk
The UN report calls for protection of women and girls to be the prime focus through sustained efforts of improving nutrition, health and education.
Gender based violence is a huge issue in most conflict zones. Rape, sexual humiliation and prostitution are only some of the factors with women of all ages falling victim, some girls extremely young and vulnerable.
Young girls are thought to be free of HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases so they fall victim to many crimes of a sexual nature. Although it is mostly young girls, young boys are also raped and forced into prostitution according to the report, this however is extremely underreported.
Education is a main factor that the United Nations are targeting. It is a reason for these children to keep going. They feel that schools should be kept open as long as possible and children should immediately start lessons in refugee camps.
Education offers a child a sense of security when surrounded by chaos and millions are losing this right globally. At the minute classes at refugee camps are not in a good way with many camps not offering lessons at all.
As a result of armed violence thousands of children die each year through knives, bullets, bombs and land mines. Millions more die from indirect consequences of warfare.
Disruption in food supplies, destruction to health services and water systems and sanitation are just some of the effects. In poor countries children are vulnerable to malnutrition and disease. An onset of armed conflict can increase death rates by up to 24 times with under fives being at particular risk.
A UNICEF Survey in Rwanda found that 80% of children had lost immediate family through the countries prolonged violence and more than a third witnessed violence which clearly left psychological scars.
Of course children react differently to different things, some take longer to get over what they have been through and others do not react, most interviewed in the UN reports in Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered permanent damage.
Visit the United Nations website for an up to date list of all their reports. www.un.org