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 effect of war on children

To protect children from the effects of war a better understanding of what these effects might be is needed. Some are obvious, some less so. Curtis Francis Doebbler has studied the situation in former Yugoslavia.

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teaching and study resource
early years
education for peace

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IN HORRIFIED FACES of children cowering in a bomb shelter in Mostar or Vitez or Ilidza during one of the regular attacks carried out on these towns, the destruction and insensitivity of war seems irrational to Moslems, Croats or Serbians. Despite this heart-piercing picture of horror, however, it is likely that some of the same people who are staring at the horrified faces of their children will soon be entering the battlefield, voluntarily or involuntarily, to contribute to the horror. Sometimes the pressure of this realisation has been so great for not only the recruits, but also for their parents and partners that some have committed suicide.

Most accounts of the war have attempted to portray the military competition with the civilians on the sidelines. But while the majority of civilians are not direct participants, many are direct victims. In fact, the overwhelming majority of victims are civilians. Thus a much truer depiction of war is given by viewing the humanitarian conditions of the civilian victims of war, especially the children.

Almost every child in Bosnia and Hercegovina carries with him or her a history of numerous problems and attempted solutions. Sometimes these will not be superficially apparent, instead they will show up as the child tries to become a contributing member of society or a caring parent. It is because of the effects war can have on children that attempts have been and are being made to protect children.

The recognition that children should be protected from the effects of war is not new. Indeed there are instruments of protection which currently exist. At the base there are the standards. The laws of armed conflicts, ironically referred to as humanitarian laws, human rights laws and even a special area of these dealing with the protection of children. Together these laws form a minimum standard that their drafters believed to be the last outpost of civilised society. Some of the provisions are:

- children must be shown special care appropriate for their circumstances;
- children should not be separated from their parents;
- children under 15 years of age should not be recruited to fight in war;
- children should be evacuated from areas of danger to protected areas.

The best indicators of health of a society are the indicators of child and infant health. Not only are children and infants the most sensitive to disaster, but they are also the group that a civilised society will strive most to protect.

After mortality, nutrition is the most important indicators of child health. And as is the case in most parts of the world, the most vulnerable groups are the hardest hit. The misuse of humanitarian assistance is often a contributory factor. And anyone who has visited for example Sarajevo, Pale, Belgrade or Posse where military headquarters are based can attest to the relatively high standard of cuisine that the military chiefs enjoy, while sometimes within reach of the aroma of brewing coffee are civilians who haven't had a hot meal for more than a year.

Although there is not yet a systematic description of the impact of the war on social conditions in former Yugoslavia, there are a multitude of ad hoc accounts with evidence of serious social problems. The mere fighting of a war in which neighbours, sometimes even family members, are pitted against each other is perhaps the most substantial testimony possible of the breakdown of social order. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and the parts of Croatia that are dependent on humanitarian assistance people, who are the victims of war, have even taken to fighting each other to obtain vital humanitarian assistance.

The psychological impact of the war on children has been illustrated by psychologists who have studied them. Half of the one million children who were traumatised were estimated to have seen dead or severely mutilated people. More than two-thirds of the children interviewed had feared they were going to die.

social assistance
Several organisations have concentrated on providing social rehabilitation assistance to children. In Croatia and one location in the Hercegovina region of Bosnia and Hercegovina a grassroots organisation called Suncrokret has been working with children in refugee camps. Suncrokret volunteers play with children, organise basic school lessons and try to re-create the family atmosphere that the children lost when they were displaced by the war. This work helps less than 1% of the refugees. Other organisations have entered into partnerships with the Croatian government to provide psycho-social assistance to children in Croatia. UNICEF have begun a program of social rehabilitation with the Croatian government. This programme aims mainly at training local social workers and psychologists to deal with the problems that confront children. While these programmes have had very limited success, they rarely reach the most vulnerable groups such as refugee children.

In Serbia and Montenegro, the Soros Foundation sponsors children's camps. which provide an almost luxurious environment for children for sessions lasting a number of weeks. Children are able to study, play and generally forget the war. Again, however, these camps reach only small portions of the population and they do not hesitate from helping children to establish a sense of national pride, which without proper guidance when they return home can translate into the ultra-nationalism that fuels the continuation of the war.

Education is also relevant to the protection of children. Through education child health can be improved, social-psycho development can be promoted and domestic needs can be understood.

Statistically, the fact that there is a clear impact is not difficult to see. More than a million children throughout the former Yugoslavia have not had the opportunity to attend primary or secondary school for more than two years. As the conflict continues without an end in sight and humanitarian organisations continue to struggle to provide the immediate material needs of the victims of the war, it is increasingly possible that a whole generation might be left without a basic education. This turn of events alone will plummet a developed country into an underdeveloped country.

peaceful future
Providing for a peaceful future for our children requires more than merely stopping the current armed conflict. It requires educating, or perhaps better said, convincing, a whole generation of the necessity to settle their disputes peacefully. As John Benyon of UNESCO's emergency education aid team recognised recently there is no doubt that a 'good education system that incorporates, for example, the teaching of tolerance, can provide one of the foundations for peace'. The benefits of an educational system that incorporates values of human rights, respect for human life and peace is increased where children have fewer other influences. In this respect disasters often provide better than usual opportunities to influence children through educational programmes because children have few other activities to occupy them. At the same time these programmes can offer children a chance to forget their vulnerable circumstances for a time and to concentrate on developing themselves.

Even if we cannot convince adults from using force to resolve differences, it must be hoped that we can at least protect our children from the scourge of this behaviour. If we cannot do this then not only the combatants, but also the whole international community, has surrendered the last glimpse of hope for a future generation that can live in peace and resolve their disputes peacefully.

Edited from a longer paper Children in the Armed Conflict in Former Yugoslavia. Curtis Francis Doebbler. 

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