Memories from the Syrian civil war haunt a 15-year-old boy who fled his home when his neighborhood was attacked. “It was very dark. We were all hiding.” He saw roadside massacres and dead children. “He stayed awake every night for two months because of all the scary sounds.”
Another Syrian boy, 16 years old, says, “I have seen children slaughtered. I don’t think I’ll ever be okay again.” These boys are among 20 million children around the world who have lived through the trauma of war, witnessing horrors they can never forget. They remind us that the effects of war on children reverberate long after the bullets and bombs.
Over the years, wars have moved from battlefields to backyards. Civilians aren’t reading about the victims of remote conflicts, they are the victims — even targets. In the last century, civilian fatalities in war have jumped from 5% to 90%. Kids and teens, from D.R. Congo to Afghanistan to Uganda, are growing up with the scars of war on their bodies and in their minds. As one expert said, “children are dropping out of childhood.”
The numbers are heart-stopping: 2.7 million children have died as a direct result of the conflict in D.R. Congo alone. With the tens of thousands of child soldiers forced to fight, now there are children “at both ends of the gun.” Children make up half of all refugees. Around the world, 100 million children — left orphaned and homeless by violence — wander the streets, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Quietly, and insidiously, war manifests in physical, economic and psychological ways. The UNICEF report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children says, “Not only are large numbers of children killed and injured, but countless others grow up deprived of their material and emotional needs, including the structures that give meaning to social and cultural life. The entire fabric of their societies their homes, schools, health systems and religious institutions are torn to pieces.”
Wars interrupt food supplies, destroy crops and water sanitation, leaving children malnourished and vulnerable to infection. Wars destroy health services and hospitals, causing children to die from easily preventable illnesses like diarrhea. Rape, used as a tool of war, results not only in severe emotional trauma but also in HIV/AIDS for young girls. Every year, thousands of children suffer landmine injuries — not only losing their limbs, but often all hope for their futures.
War also has brutal economic consequences. In war-torn areas, the vicious cycle of poverty becomes even more impossible to break when children can’t attend school. Conflict destroys industries and jobs, straining already destitute families.
The psychological impact of war on children is perhaps the most devastating. Children are much more impressionable and vulnerable to PTSD than adults. Adolescents everywhere are already struggling with their identities, and the loss of community can push them into further confusion, anxiety, and depression — even suicide. Many turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. More than 60% of Rwandan children interviewed after the genocide said they “did not care whether they ever grew up.”
As children grow into adults, the residual effects of war fold into their lives — and livelihoods. Deprived of economic hope and possibility, some alter their moral structures to survive, be it through theft, prostitution or violence. This is the generation of teenagers that will, like me, inherit their countries’ futures and our global society. According to a United Nations statement, “Children represent the hopes and future of every society; destroy them and you have destroyed a society.”
Despite what children of war have endured, humanitarian NGOs do not view them as helpless victims. With the right support, children can heal. War Child International creates safe havens, provides protection and helps to rebuild schools and communities after conflict. Save the Children raises awareness, and The Culture of Peace works toward social reintegration through education.
According to a UNICEF report, the “most important factor contributing to a child’s resilience is the opportunity for expression.” Creative writing and storytelling therapy in Uganda resulted in “remarkable improvement” for child soldiers and victims; kids reported that writing alleviated some of their nightmares and anxiety. In Rwanda, 70,000 people have reported that singing, dancing, drama and writing projects created by global NGOs have “eased the pain of their memories.”
One veteran said, “I came very close to committing suicide — writing helped me get control of my mind.” Aid organizations work to re-establish children’s daily routines of chores and school, allowing kids to recapture a sense of purpose. And communities can rebuild: in Angola, tribal chiefs gave orphaned teenagers land and supplies, and helped them to reconstruct their homes, and their lives. Healing may be a long and difficult process for children, but there is hope in the tireless work of aid agencies, and in the resilience of the human spirit.
Photo credit: FreedomHouse