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Children and war

By Nick Danziger
Although international humanitarian and human rights law provide special protection to children, too many of them are caught up in armed conflict. Red Cross, Red Crescent examines the problem and features portraits of children from conflict zones in Ethiopia, Russia and Sierra Leone.

Every day as a result of conflict, thousands of civilians are killed or injured. More than half of these victims are children. The days when the captain of a sinking ship ordered women and children first onto lifeboats are just a fading notion. The Second World War was a watershed when civilian victims were as numerous as combatants. Now, in almost all current conflicts, civilians are the majority of casualties, with children suffering disproportionately. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 2 million children have been killed by conflict over the last decade; 6 million children have been made homeless; 12 million have been injured or disabled; and there are at least 300,000 child soldiers operating in 30 different conflicts across the globe.

A child is particularly vulnerable to the ravages of war. According to a United Nations study on children in war by Graca Machel, "The physical, sexual and emotional violence to which they [children] are exposed shatters their world. War undermines the very foundations of children's lives, destroying their homes, splintering their communities and breaking down their trust in adults." We treat bullet and shrapnel wounds, provide prosthesis for mine victims, house the displaced and refugees of ongoing conflicts, but how do we fare in providing those most vulnerable and least able to cope with the nutritional, environmental, emotional and psychological effects of conflict?

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is working to limit the effects of armed conflict on children. The ICRC, frequently in conjunction with different National Societies and the International Federation, is bringing food and medical relief to child victims as well as investing in longer-term solutions to ensure respect for a child's basic human rights during armed conflict.


Future generations

Who, how, why and what started the conflict is irrelevant to the children once the killing has started. However, in a round table on 'The effects of conflict on women and the family' held in Addis Ababa in June 2003, the president of Ethiopia, Girma Woldegiorgis, stated that "Poverty is the number-one enemy." Professor Seyoum Gebre Selassie added that, until there was family planning and Ethiopia had smaller families, the pressures on land and resources will remain one of the root causes to conflict.

Increasingly, the ICRC often finds itself overstretched as it tries to deal with not only the emergency effects of conflict, but the growing safety provisions that are a must if our youngest and most vulnerable members of society are to be protected and given hope for a decent future. At the ICRC Sylvia Ladame, policy adviser "Children in War" division for policy and cooperation with the Movement, is moving the ICRC towards a more all-encompassing approach for children affected by war: "We can no longer just work on the physical well-being of the child, we need to make sure that the physical, mental and social aspects of the child are in equilibrium."

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is beginning to work on long-term projects that are prerequisites for a child's development. One programme recently initiated by the ICRC, Exploring Humanitarian Law, is at least likely to get school-aged children to consider the devastating effects of ignoring the basic principles of common values and perhaps influence governments, local authorities, schools, and parents who are the guardians of future generations. Will it be too much to ask that in the near future no parent will say, "I consider myself lucky that my child had only one leg amputated", when a bomb was dropped on the local school that left many children dead. Let's also hope that provisions for children are long term and all-encompassing.

A broken childhood

Journalist Nick Danziger travelled to Ethiopia and Russia's northern Caucasus in order to find out how children caught in conflict live and cope in the midst of hardship.

The ICRC Land Cruiser has been driving through kilometres of featureless bush country in Ethiopia. We pass men, women and children of the Kereyou, Issa and Afar tribes. They are of exceptional beauty, very slender and erect with delicate features and fine, wide-set eyes. All the men carry a stick for herding or a Kalashnikov to protect themselves and their cattle from their rivals, with whom they have been at war for over 1,000 years. We pass formerly grass-thatched structures that have been abandoned due to the drought and conflict, and arrive at the settlement of Beidafora near Debel.

The people at the settlement are living in dire conditions. Some are so weak that they are seated under the burning sun that offers little escape. When we arrive the naked boys and men in ragged clothes gaze at us apprehensively.

One woman, Amina, dressed in the traditional white of a widow, sits apart from the men. A month before, her clan, the Guideboso tribe of Afar, was ambushed at Kurbugi by the Issa tribe over grazing land. They thought that a ceasefire had been agreed through the federal government so they were not expecting to fight. In the ambush seven of their tribe were killed and seven injured. The conflict, dating back to before the time of the Prophet Mohammed, was over grazing land and watering holes. Although she is to be married to her brother's closest relative, a cousin, after her four months and ten days of mourning, he is very poor, as is everyone else; there is no one to look after her three sons and daughter. Her oldest son, Orvé Omad aged nine, looks after her animals, but due to the lack of grazing, all her cattle have perished, as have three of her 15 goats.

Hassan Hambo, chairman of the village, explains that the difference between starving and living has been the distribution of foodstuffs by the ICRC and the government, "We don't have an answer to this drought and the conflict, we are waiting for God: good water, help from organizations for development. We have no alternatives to look after our children."

Amina's son already seeks revenge, as if to make the point clear 13-year-old Arasa Daoud's ambitions are homicidal, "I want a gun to kill the Issa and loot his cattle." Many children are herders and have therefore already been initiated into the conflict.


The Alina camp for displaced persons from Chechnya and northern Ossetia, Ingushetia, Russia, July 2003. In the playroom, the carers of the Ingushetian branch of the Russian Red Cross help the children to change their attitudes through playing, music and reading stories.


Ethiopian street children aged 13 and 14 in Adigrat, Tigray, June 2003.

Poverty as root cause

Sadly, there are few organizations to launch this region on to the path of development in the midst of this abject poverty. Working there because of the conflict, the ICRC is one of the few international agencies assisting the Afar in Ethiopia.

As Amina's eldest son chews the seeds of the Prosopis tree that had been collected for her goats, she tells me that three of her children sleep badly. One suffers from fever, another has scabs and the third has whooping cough at night, all remain untreated, the effects of the conflict.

If the margin between life and death can be an emergency food distribution during a period of drought, then a motivated branch of a National Red Cross or Red Crescent society can make the difference between a bright future and one that rarely could be called anything other than short and brutish.

As the crow flies, the Tigray region is not far from the scorched earth of the Afar region. Drought is also an ever-present reality and danger here, but one man, Berane Alemu, secretary of the Adigrat branch of the Ethiopian Red Cross (ERCS) is making a positive impact on the lives of 238 street children.

Berane lives and breathes the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. With ICRC financing the local branch of the Ethiopian Red Cross, Berane's team runs 'the orphans' camp', home to 38 boys and girls who would otherwise have been exposed to the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, and in the case of girls to prostitution, rape, unwanted pregnancies and abortions that seriously endanger their lives.


In the Alina camp for displaced people in the Russian region of Ingushetia, the playroom remains a safe haven for children.

Vital support

However, among Adigrat's 200 homeless children, are four boys aged 13 and 14. They will, thanks to the ICRC, ERCS and the local Catholic church, be going to school the following morning. For 200 birr per year (US$ 25) per child, the four street children, two Beranes, Salomon and Getan, will have notebooks, pen and pencil. For food they sell eggs when they are not at school but they dream of investing in a box of assorted goods for sale with bigger profits for less of a hand-to-mouth existence.

Getan is one of those who lost a parent as a direct consequence of the war. As he ties a thin disused plastic bag around his sandal to keep it from falling apart he tells me "My father was killed in the [Ethiopian-Eritrean] war and my mother was already dead. My grandmother hasn't enough to feed me and I always argued with her." Getan hasonly missed school once, for a week, when he woke with an aching arm. "I went to a man who advised me to wash my arm in Ajax washing powder and then spread car grease on my arm." Berane, the youngest in the group and Getan's best friend, wants to become a doctor. "Where do you keep your schoolbooks?" I asked him. "After I have done my homework I hand them in to a local shopkeeper." Later, we retrieved his notebooks. Berane has neat handwriting, a beginner's knowledge of English and good marks. "I am 11th in my class, out of 81."

As this particular border conflict recedes, the ICRC will have difficulty in continuing to fund a programme that's no longer an emergency even though the town has doubled in size as a result of the forced dislocation of peoples from both sides of the Ethiopean-Eritrean border. There will be a need for the International Federation to be involved in local capacity building as well as finding a donor to keep the programme running and the children at school. The parents of street children are even less likely to take them home. Originally pushed on to the street because of their parents' inability to feed them, they now say that the ICRC and ERCS are taking better care of them than they ever could.


A deadly threat in Iraq

The problem of explosive remnants of war (ERW) is acute in Iraq. ERW describes a wide range of explosive munitions remaining in an area after the end of a conflict. It includes everything from artillery shells, grenades, mortar and cluster bombs to rockets and missiles.

According to Johan Sohlberg, the ICRC's regional ERW adviser, "They constitute a permanent threat to the population, especially children, who are unaware of the danger: they continuously come into contact with them, play with them and risk getting maimed or killed."

Along with the International Federation, the ICRC has launched an awareness campaign on mines and ERW. "The main message we are stressing is: if you see something suspicious, stop! Don't go near it; don't touch it; don't throw anything at it; and don't pick it up!" says Sohlberg. Iraq Red Crescent volunteers are involved in areas at risks — especially in southern Iraq — where they distribute posters and leaflets, collect data and report their findings.

Raising awareness about explosive remnants of war
in Iraq is a major activity of the ICRC in the country.


ICRC orthopaedic rehabilitation centre, Bomba Alta, Angola.

Fleeing Chechnya

Nazaran is set against a dramatic backdrop of magnificent mountain peaks. Although the capital of Ingushetia, it is no more than a town with a surprising amount of house construction. Beneath the tranquil surface and alpine chocolate box scenery, a quarter of its current residents, of which two-thirds are children, have fled the fighting in Chechnya or from an earlier, now-forgotten conflict in neighbouring northern Ossetia. In youth centres and playrooms financed by the ICRC and the British Red Cross, the Ingushetia branch of the Russian Red Cross has tried to create a haven for the children of conflict.

At the Alina camp for displaced people, two girls are being coached to sing the hit song from the Russian version of TV's Star Academy. The playroom is hung with colourful drawings by children, who have escaped the fighting in neighbouring Chechnya. On the surface the children seem well looked after and healthy, but the grown-ups know that in addition to the emotional burdens they all carry, they live under the uncertainty of what is their future once they return home.

Ahilgova is a psychologist who works in one of the playrooms for Chechen children; she is also a displaced person from the conflict in Ossetia. She tells me that some of the children are psychologically unstable, "They can be aggressive, don't speak and quarrel over toys, they have nightmares, and some become frozen with fear at the mere sound of a helicopter rotor blade or airplane." She hopes to change their attitudes through playing and music, and that stories and poems will help them change their thoughts. Ahilgova says sudden panic attacks or acute anxiety are a result of having witnessed the death of a relative, witnessing a bomb or mine explosion, being wounded or seeing a close relative, often an older brother, being dragged away by armed men.

Tamila, a 15-year-old Chechen who fled the fighting with her parents, sits in the library of the Red Cross, which also boasts a computer room, gym and a classroom for English lessons. She is currently reading a book about the secrets of civilization, but tells me that she enjoys reading the Russian classics; she compares many of the scenes in Tolstoy's War and Peace to what she has witnessed, "There is as much blood and the separation of close relatives."

In the next room, 17-year-old Amina sits in front of her computer terminal with a notebook with Britney Spears on the cover at her side. She was forced to flee her home in northern Ossetia when she was 6 years old, but she still longs to go home. As we speak 12-year-old Djambulat's mobile phone begins to ring, he is embarrassed and doesn't answer, he tells me his solution to the ongoing conflicts, "Grown-ups cause the war, I would detain them. They have no heart." Djambulat, like Amina, says they don't know how these wars started.

Nick Danziger
Nick Danziger is an author, documentary film-maker and photographer.

Rehabilitating child soldiers

by Rosemarie North


Child soldiers are increasingly involved as cheap labour in armed conflicts, like this boy in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

During Sierra Leone's ten-year civil war, armed factions used thousands of children as soldiers. A Red Cross programme has been reintegrating former fighters for three years. But can young ex-combatants ever really go home?

Sisqo(1), a slim 16-year-old, is consulting Red Cross workers about trouble at school. He wants his teacher to stop taunting him by calling him a rebel.

In the past Sisqo would have sorted the problem out with jungle justice — the brutality he learned when he was indeed a rebel fighting against Sierra Leone's government. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) kidnapped Sisqo at the age of 9. After proving his worth as a fighter, he was promoted to the rank of chief security officer and managed a band of boys who looted villages. Crazed by drugs, armed factions in Sierra Leone roamed the countryside stealing, burning houses, deliberately maiming children and adults, raping and killing.

Sisqo managed to escape from the RUF after four years. At 13, he was tired of war. His native village, Makeni, rejected him because he'd been a rebel. And his family was too poor to support him financially. But he'd heard of a programme that might help him.

Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation (CAR) is a ten-month Red Cross programme, aimed at young people aged 10 to 18 who were harmed during the war. Some young people fought. Others became sex slaves, domestic labourers or the victims of violence. This year 450 youngsters are enrolled in three CAR centres, funded by the British, Canadian and Swedish Red Cross and the ICRC, and run by the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society. Participants receive counselling to help them come to terms with their experiences, they catch up on basic schooling, their health is checked, and the older children learn job skills like tie-dyeing, soap-making, building construction or tailoring. At the end of the year, most of the younger children are enrolled in schools. More than 300 children have been through CAR since 2001. The Spanish Red Cross plans to build a fourth centre.

At the same time as working with the children, the Sierra Leone Red Cross goes into villages and uses drama, dance and discussions to encourage parents, neighbours and communities to accept and care for the children.

CAR case manager Abu Bakar Sesay says the Red Cross tells villagers that even the ex-fighters are victims.

"We tell them these kids are not the cause of the war. They were drugged, forced to do certain things. If you just leave them the problem will return. But if you can occupy them then good can come from it."

Fatmata, a tiny 17-year-old, is still adjusting to the CAR programme. Rebels captured her in her home, when she was 14. They said she had to join up or they would kill her. She was with a rebel band called Kill Man No Blood, named because they could attack others and escape without being wounded. Fatmata commanded 15 other children.

She managed to leave but it's not a happy ending yet. She fell out with her mother, who told her she would always be a killer. Fatmata discovered that she and her boyfriend were going to have a baby. But a former RUF colleague told her boyfriend she'd been a rebel. He left her and denied the baby was his. Now in the CAR programme, Fatmata struggles to support herself and her 11-month-old baby. She's hoping to be able to live by selling fabric she dyes.

When asked about her future she nods uncertainly. She's only been at the CAR centre a few months and she has fears for her future. Fatmata is one of several dozen ex-combatants living in the 2,000-strong village of Rokel, a short drive away from the Waterloo CAR centre. The elected headman, Tunde S. Coker, says some people in Rokel were reluctant to accept the former fighters. It's understandable — in some cases, children were forced by the rebels to kill their parents, mutilate them by chopping off limbs or rape their own mothers. And then villagers resented the special treatment the young people were getting — counselling, education, skills training and a hot meal at the CAR centre.

"It takes time to forgive and forget but it is part of the healing process. When you take into consideration the serious atrocities, it takes time," says village secretary, Septimus A. Saffa.

Rosemarie North
Rosemarie North travelled to Sierra Leone on assignment with the International Federation.

(1) To protect the children's identity, they have chosen new names for this story.

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