Children bear the brunt of modern warfare

Suffer Not, The Children Do

Truth is said to be the first casualty of war, writes Mark Cantrell, but if that is so then it is a close run race against innocence

ALL too often in modern warfare, civilians pay the cost of modern conflict with a disproportionate burden falling on women - and children. Sometimes, it is a war in all but name.

Back in 1996, American journalist Leslie Stahl asked US Secretary of State Madelaine Albright if the costs of sanctions born by the Iraqi population were worth it to be rid of Saddam Hussein. Her response gained infamy among many opposed to war in general, and the burden it places on children in particular.

"Yes, we think the price is worth paying," she replied.

It is, of course, easy to foot the bill when someone else is reaching into the wallet. It is also true that more than half a million children had died preventable deaths in a country that once boasted a modern health care system. Prior to the first Gulf War, the diseases and ailments killing these children were virtually unheard of. The population enjoyed over 90 percent coverage, not only in health care but also in the provision of another important factor to health and well-being - access to clean water.

Distance, and the sheer scale of tragedy, doubtless desensitises those in high office to the full-scale impact of human tragedy. Perhaps that goes some way to explain Albright's cold statement of policy. On the other hand, perhaps she was merely giving a new take on the old adage about the 'banality of evil'.

Statistics can hide a multitude of horror stories, even while they seek to shed light upon them. As Stalin once chillingly observed: "One death is a tragedy but a million is just a statistic."

So with that in mind, here are a few numbers to mull over.

Sixty million people were killed in wars throughout the Twentieth Century. Over thirty wars are currently raging in the Twenty First Century. One in four children are affected by conflict world-wide. Since 1990 some 17 million children have been displaced by war. More than 2 million have been killed. More than 1 million are separated from parents or orphaned. More than six million have been disabled and over 10 million traumatised by conflict. Some 300, 000 children are conscripted as child soldiers in a combat or support role. Even when the fighting stops the carnage continues: every year between 8,000 and 10,000 children are maimed or killed by landmines and unexploded munitions.

This is the face of war and conflict in the modern age. Civilians face the harshest onslaught, either as victims caught in the crossfire or as specific targets. Civilian casualties now account for an estimated 90 per cent, with half of these being children. War touches everyone but it is statistically safer now to be a combatant than a non-combatant.

"The nature of war has changed dramatically," says Save The Children. "Its horrors are no longer experienced primarily by soldiers fighting on front lines. Today's conflicts happen where people live; in backyards and main streets and they take a brutal toll on women and children."

During armed conflict, girls and women are threatened with rape, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, trafficking, sexual humiliation and mutilation. The use of rape and other forms of violence against women often becomes a strategy in wars used by all sides. These are the added burdens above and beyond the dangers of military action.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says: "Most modern conflicts are internal. They mainly affect ethnic, racial and religious minorities within the borders of a single country, with the poorest members of society usually bearing the brunt. The state of terror so often inflicted by the combatants serves as a means of social control; it is a kind of total war permeating the entire fabric of society - its economic, political, social and cultural realms - in which the civilian population is increasingly targeted by the warring parties."

Children consequently witness the horrors of war first hand. They are caught in the crossfire, or else deliberately targeted. They are press-ganged into military service. They see the familiar in their life destroyed, family members vanish, abused or killed. They experience all the suffering and turmoil and pain of conflict first hand. Yet all too often, they are perceived as little adults, capable of taking it and standing firm with a stiff upper lip. As if adults themselves caught in conflict are capable of the same. For civilians, war has gone beyond hell.

"All too often children are helpless, first hand witnesses of atrocities committed against their parents or family members," the ICRC adds. "They are killed, mutilated, imprisoned or otherwise separated from their families. Cut off from an environment familiar to them, even those who manage to escape lack any certainty as to their future and that of their loved ones. They are often forced to flee, abandoned to their own devices and rejected without identity. These children suffer deep psychological wounds that seem incurable to them but from which well-targeted care can help them recover."

The plight of the world's war victims isn't entirely bleak, however, with various agencies such as Save The Children, Unicef, The Red Cross and others operating a variety of programmes to help alleviate the suffering. Together, they might not be able to stop the dogs of war from ravaging societies, but they work tirelessly to try and heal the hurts and ultimately muzzle the hounds. At least when it comes to children.

The 'war' they wage against war has many fronts. Campaigns seek to highlight the issues of the youngest and most helpless victims of man's oldest hobby. The propaganda war, backed up with people on the ground, providing more material tactics and strategies. The battle to save the child is an ongoing war, and while such actions might not be able to abolish war, the objective is keep it out of the kindergarten.

Unicef is currently [at the time this was written] waging a 'shock and awe' campaign with television viewers in Belgium, highlighting the issue with the help of the Smurfs. They obtained permission from the family of the cartoon character's creator 'Peyo' to carpet-bomb the message home. The devastation wrought was terrible, with many victims among the Smurf population. That it takes the deliberate slaughter of these peaceful cartoon characters to raise awareness of the plight of flesh and blood children is a tragedy in itself. Certainly, the Smurfs will never be the same again.

Back in the frontline, material aid can cover anything from the basics of life such as food and clothing and shelter, to the provision of schooling and teaching materials, counselling and care, social support and systems to trace and find lost family members. The range of needs for war-damaged children is vast and complicated, and it can take many years to put the pieces of shattered lives back together.

War Child is a newcomer among the troop of organisation working to alleviate the suffering. It is a network of affiliated but independent organisations that grew out of the horrors of war in the former Yugoslavia. Film makers Bill Leeson and David Wilson visited the country in 1993 to make a documentary on the role of artists in war for the BBC's Arena programme. They were so struck by what they saw, that they were moved to try and make more than a film - but also a difference.

Today the War Child organisation has grown into a network of independent organisations working to help children affected by war. It applies a three-fold strategy to its mission: To act as an implementing agency; identifying, developing and staffing aid programmes. As a grant-making trust, providing funding and logistical support for other non-governmental organisations. And as a pressure group, forging links with the media and entertainment industries to promote awareness of the problems facing children in war zones, as well as to mobilise public support on their behalf.

The War Child organisation defines a war-zone not just as a current 'hot' conflict, but also places where the fighting has ceased but the children still suffer from the ongoing devastation of the aftermath, or else where their lives are in jeopardy due to poverty, violence and disease. On any one of these definitions, there is plenty to keep them - and other organisations working in this field - busy long after the wars are forgotten.

Lifting the burden of war from a child's shoulders doesn't end with the laying down of arms and the drafting of a peace settlement. The damage inflicted lingers long in the physical and mental environment of the post-war period. All too often the youngest victims are forgotten. Part of the fight for children's peace of mind is to gain recognition that they have a voice.

As War Child said in its 2005 report 'Your War Is Not With Me': "The specific needs of children need to be addressed in peace negotiations or plans for post-conflict reconstruction. Young people should not be seen just as the passive victims of war, but as a group that is vital to the future of their communities. Children are too often ignored in establishing the end to conflict and their voices go unheard in creating and defining peace."

Children are quite literally the future. But for too many young lives the future is now and forever - war.

This article was originally written for a planned culture and current affairs magazine that, in the end, never got off the ground, so it subsequently made its first appearance on one of the author's earlier blogsites.

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