Sunday, July 20, 2014

In the war zone

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 20, 2014

Children flee from the war zone. Photo: AFP
AFP Children flee from the war zone. Photo: AFP

In this escalation of hostilities in one of the world’s most volatile of regions, this nameless boy, and thousands of children like him, force us to face the ugly truth — that wars kill children, not a few, but millions. They wound children. And they leave them bereft and scarred for life.

Earlier this month, the United Nations released its annual report on children and armed conflict. It makes depressing reading. It documents the ever-expanding arena of war and conflict, between and within countries. It states that armed conflict has ‘a disproportionate impact on children’ and that indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas as well as the use of terror tactics was taking a worrying toll on children.

The report also reminds us that despite campaigns to stop using children, national armies and armed groups continue to recruit young children. The UN report says that last year, children were used in 23 conflict situations around the world. It gives a long list of countries where this is happening and specifically names 51 armed groups that continue to use children.

Apart from Palestine, almost every day we are reminded about what war and conflict do to children. Remember the 223 schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria abducted by the armed rebel group Boko Haram? It is now three months and they have still not been released. On July 13, the leader of the group released a video where he mocked the efforts of people like the brave Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai to negotiate their release. What is happening to these girls? Will they ever return? And if they do, will they be able to deal with what they have been through?

The UN report also gives us a glimpse of this aspect of war and children, that of sexual violence that boys and girls face. We do not know what is happening to those girls in Nigeria. What is already documented is the violence that children are facing in places like Syria, where there appears no end to the war. The UN report mentions that apart from repeated sexual harassment of women and girls at government checkpoints, there are reports of the abduction of young women and girls in groups at checkpoints. These girls are then released a few days later and sent back to their villages, thereby ‘intentionally exposing them as victims of rape and subjecting them to rejection by their families.’

Children are killed, kidnapped, forced to fight. But apart from that, in on-going conflicts, such as the situation between Palestine and Israel, they live under the daily cloud of violence, where the ordinary routine of daily life like going to school become impossible.

Here is a quote from the UN report about the situation in the West Bank last year. Change the year to 2014, and you will get a sense of what has become a frequent, almost permanent, state of affairs in Palestine: “Fifty-eight education-related incidents affecting 11,935 children were reported in the West Bank, resulting in damage to school facilities, interruption of classes and injury to children. Forty-one incidents involved Israeli security forces operations near or inside schools, forced entry without forewarning, the firing of tear gas canisters and sound bombs into school yards and, in some cases, structural damage to schools. In 15 of the incidents, Israeli security forces fired tear gas canisters into schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), some during class hours, without forewarning. In a majority of instances, schoolchildren and teachers were delayed or prevented from going to school owing to checkpoints, areas closed for military operations or exercises, military patrols in front of schools and preventive closures by the Israel Defense Forces. In 32 cases, teachers and children were arrested inside the school, at checkpoints or on their way to school.”

Like that boy in the photograph, generations of young children in Palestine and elsewhere do not know what it is like to simply go to school, to study, to dream of a better future.

(To read the original, click here.)

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