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
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.
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
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.
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.
| NICK DANZIGER
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
| NICK DANZIGER
Ethiopian street children
aged 13 and 14 in Adigrat, Tigray, June 2003.
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
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
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
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.
RED CRESCENT SOCIETY / ICRC
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.
awareness about explosive remnants of war
in Iraq is a major activity of the ICRC in the country.
ANNE-MARIE GROBET / ICRC
ICRC orthopaedic rehabilitation centre, Bomba
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 is an author, documentary film-maker and photographer.
by Rosemarie North
|JEAN-PATRICK DI SILVESTRO / ICRC
Child soldiers are increasingly involved
as cheap labour in armed conflicts, like this boy in
Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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 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.
Top | Contact
Us | Credits | Previous
issue | Webmaster
© 2003 | Copyright