Blood soaked streets-
That’s my ground,
That’s where I play around.
Sound of gunshots –
That’s my song,
That’s my lulla – lullaby.
– “Lullaby” by Manipur-based band Imphal Talkies, dedicated to all children growing up in conflict zones.
Acts of violence affect children in all the ways it affects adults, but also in devastatingly different ways. Children are the most-vulnerable population in a conflict zone. Since they are dependent on the care and empathy of adults for their survival, their attachments are frequently disrupted in times of wars. Children exposed to violence are more likely to suffer from attachment problems, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and aggression. Academic and cognitive problems, delinquency, and involvement in crime are also associated with early experiences of violence.
Every year, thousands of children die or suffer a range of injuries in war-related violence all over the world. For instance, children become easy victims of landmine explosions or drone attacks. Conditions for the maintenance of child-health services like water, sanitation, nutrition, access to medicines (among others) deteriorate in war-like situations. Refugee children are also particularly vulnerable to deadly infections and malnutrition.
In cases of ethnic cleansing, sexual abuse of women and children is frequently resorted to, as a weapon against the targeted community. The genocide in Rwanda perpetuated by the majority Hutu community had horrific tales of sexual violence on Tutsi women, committed with the intention of spoiling their blood line. In fact, the UN passed the Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security to draw attention to the gendered nature of conflicts and to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. Children born from acts of rape are often raised in neglect and shame, leading to emotional stress and identity disorders. During wars, girls are often forced into prostitution and are subject to gang rapes and beatings.
The two World Wars witnessed unprecedented levels of violence and destruction. Many a child was pushed into adulthood during these times. Since many men went out to fight on the battlefront, women and children were left to fend for themselves. Children were compelled to take up arduous and exploitative jobs in factories for survival. The Studio Ghibli masterpiece, “Grave of the Fireflies”, narrates the story of a young brother and sister caught up in the devastation of World War II.
The rise of Nazism under Hitler led to completely different experiences of fear and alienation for Jewish children. Anne Frank’s diary is one such brave account of a Jewish girl while she was in hiding with her family for two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The diary entries, written in a child’s authentic voice, trace her teenage years amid the hideousness of rising fascism. Her innocence and optimism is revealed in the line, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Another powerful Holocaust account, “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” explores the horror of a Nazi extermination camp through the eyes of two eight-year-old boys – Bruno, the son of the camp’s Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, a Jewish inmate.
The Vietnam war, remembered for the widespread use of Agent Orange, left a devastating impact on the combatants and their families alike. The following poem titled “War: from a Child’s Perspective” by Angela Brown describes the struggle of an American child trying to make sense of his father going to war in Vietnam:
Daddy went off to war one day
To play the big boy games
And fight the countless enemies
Who also have no names.
While I sat and played outside
And mommy baked her pies
I said to my little playmates
My daddy will not die!
He’ll fight the ones who want to take
Our freedoms and our dreams
He’s gonna blast those commies,
Though I don’t know what that means.
But daddy’s strong, he’ll survive,
My mommy told me so.
So I was brave and did not cry
When he said he had to go.
My mother told me once again,
That daddy would not die,
So I gave him a smile to carry
When we had to say goodbye.
I was right, but oh, so wrong,
To think he would not die
Because although he still walks and talks
There’s nothing in his eyes.
When daddy came back, he looked the same
And hugged and kissed my head
But soon I knew his heart was gone
His love for me was dead.
This Vietnam, that he went to
Was oh, so far away
And while he did his duty there
I learned how to pray.
“Lord, please bring my daddy home,
And keep him safe at night,
And if it’s dark and cold outside
Give him warmth and light.”
What I should have prayed instead was this:
“Lord, protect my daddy’s heart,
And don’t let the war he’s fighting
Tear his soul apart.”
Yes, daddy went off to war one day
Mommy said he would not die
But that was not completely true,
‘Cause now he’s dead inside.
Not all wars are fought on the battlefields – some are fought in courtrooms and newsrooms. The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, India’s major industrial disaster that turned the city into a cremation ground overnight, is one such war for justice, fought between a powerful business corporation and the affected people. Bhopal was struck by two tragedies – the one that happened immediately, and the other that unfolded in the years that followed. Even after 30 years, the effects of the gas leak have claimed a third generation of victims. 2500 children have been born with possible birth defects to parents who have had acute exposure to toxic gas or chronic exposure to contaminated water. Children born to families suffering from the effects of exposure are lighter, thinner and with smaller heads. Countless unknown children in Bhopal are still suffering from a range of congenital defects, malformations, growth disorders, and other health problems. Their needs aren’t acknowledged or paid attention to.
The Israel-Palestine conflict, one of the longest ongoing conflicts in the world, has sealed the fate of Palestinian children. Ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children are widespread, systematic and institutionalised under the Israeli occupation. In a 2010 newspaper report, Al-Hasan Muhtaseb, a 13-year-old Arab boy, described how he had been ‘interrogated without a lawyer late into the night, forced to confess to throwing stones against the Israeli forces, made to sign a confession in Hebrew that he couldn’t read, jailed with adults and brought before a military court’. He was only released on bail eight days later, after considerable legal effort by several human rights groups.
Renowned photographer Brian McCarty worked with children in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, which produced a variety of heart-wrenching drawings. Some children drew the keys their families kept as symbols of the homes they had fled. A few boys portrayed heroic militants with homemade bombs. Young girls in Gaza City often drew mothers and babies near scenes of carnage.
Today, wars have shifted from the battlefield to the home and neighbourhood. Civilian casualties have increased in wars – majority of them being children. For instance, civilian areas have been systematically targeted by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and by the Sri Lankan government in its fight against the LTTE. A rise in conflicts and targeted attacks on medical facilities and personnel have resulted in increased injuries and deaths of children from preventable conditions – including acute malnutrition, acute respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases.
The Syrian war has witnessed chilling scenes of children being directly affected by bombings and chemical weapons. Numerous women and child Rohingya refugees have crossed into Bangladesh. Myanmar has acted as ruthlessly as the ISIS or Boko Haram in its persecution and massacre of Rohingya children. According to a news report, even babies have not been spared by the Burmese military.
Children often take different sides in a war – they can be passive victims or unwilling participants or even perpetrators. In her recent book, “For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-1918”, Shrabani Basu reveals that the British deployed Indian children as young as 10 years to fight wars against Germany in World War I. The kids, mainly from poor families, were found under-reporting their age to earn a salary of ₹11 a month. They were taken to France where they worked towards support mobilisation for Britain’s war efforts, often getting injured in attacks.
Children were also active, enthusiastic, and critical participants in the American Civil War. Persons below 19 made up a major portion of the US population back then. Children played an important role on the home front supporting the war effort, and many soldiers on both sides invoked the issue of the futures of their children to justify why the war should be fought and won at any cost. A number of children took up arms with their elders and served as enlisted soldiers or regimental musicians.
Yet, every cloud has a silver lining. Children, while being the most-affected, are generally also most sensitised to the ill effects of war. They have begun to play a constructive role in anti-war consciousness, turning into peace activists and human rights defenders. Children are speaking up for other children in an increasingly hostile world of adults.
The most heartening initiative has come from war-ravaged Congo, where children created an organisation known as the Children’s Parliament to defend and teach human rights. The Children’s Parliament is a group which takes action against the rampant rape, murder and assaults that occur in the country. When they were 11, Junior Museke and Junior Alimoasi both started the parliament at the insistence of some NGOs. Now, Museke teaches in classrooms about issues related to basic human rights, rape and inappropriate conduct. Closer home, Malala Yousafzai has become an inspirational figure and a champion of female education, braving the threats and diktats of the Taliban.
“And when all the wars are over, a butterfly will still be beautiful,” said Ruskin Bond. Children epitomise everything that is beautiful and joyful. They deserve songs of love, not bombs and guns. A world that fails to protect its children and their innocence is unfit to be called civilised and humane. A world that is not safe for children is not safe for anybody. If the wailing cries of a child do not break your heart, I do not know what will.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.