Conflicts around the world create more than their share of horror stories, and stories of courage as well, but nothing rings as poignantly as the smallest victims, the children. These orphans are often left to fend for themselves in war zones. Some of the lucky ones are found and placed in orphanages, but some are swept up into the conflict themselves, becoming child soldiers in wars they have no way to understand and should never have been involved in.
Every conflict leaves its scars on the following generations, but recent clashes seem to be creating a new generation of orphans across the globe. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund and a number of organizations struggle to find and care for these lost children, but there is only so much organizations can do. It is up to the world society as a whole to bring a halt to the wars that are creating an exponential rise in orphans in the world.
The Iraqi Orphan Foundation reports over three million orphans in Iraq alone. That is a heartbreaking increase from UNICEF’s 2012 estimate of 800 thousand orphans (SICFIraq.org). Like any child without an adult to protect and care for them, these children become targets of the unscrupulous. They are vulnerable to kidnappers who abuse and use them as beggars, servants or prostitutes. Some are sold abroad to “wealthy foreigners” for purposes that do not bear repeating.
Although vehemently denied by many terrorist groups, the use of child soldiers came to the world’s attention during the Vietnam War. This was the first time news cameras were allowed to broadcast from a war zone. The scenes of battle and destruction sparked a movement against war in the United States and around the world. That outcry of righteous indignation seems somehow quieter for the current generations, despite even more information delivered almost instantly via social networks and digital media.
Currently, there is no way to know exactly how many children have been conscripted around the world. They are taken in by whatever warring groups find them as young as 10 years old. Some are initially put to work as servants or camp guards. Eventually they are armed and sent into battle, having never known the true joy of childhood due to the war raging around them. They are instead hardened soldiers, whose lives are given to causes they will always be too young to call their own. These war orphans, the smallest victims, become that which made them.
These orphans are hungry, they are frightened and confused. Anyone who takes an interest in them becomes “family” be it a nun in an orphanage or a war lord in the combat zone. They have no options, no choices and no outlets. Their loyalties are bought with fear and basic human essentials like food, clothing, shelter and security. Their world shrinks to include nothing more than surviving. Sadly the only way to do this is to do as they are told, committing atrocities against others that they would never consider if left to develop their own morals and belief structure.
Since 1998 UNICEF has rescued over 100 thousand of these orphans of war, most of them in Africa. In Nepal, UNICEF was instrumental in rescuing children who fought with Maoist guerrillas during a 10 year civil war.
In Afghanistan, RAWA.org reported in 200 that over one million children were either orphaned or separated from their parents during the decades of war that has decimated the country. Almost 15 years later, conflict continues, and children continue to be used for purposes never intended. Just last month, a 10-year –old girl was strapped into a suicide bomber’s vest by her own brother and sent out to die. She either failed to detonate the bomb or was too frightened to do so. The story is all too common and all too real for these children who have nowhere to turn for safety and comfort.
Some of these children do not lose their parents to war or bombings. Some are forced to orphan themselves by killing their own parents. This creates an atmosphere where the child is then indoctrinated into the ideals of the fighting force. These children are often victims as well as killers, and it is up to society entire to free them of ravages of adult conflicts.
Removing these orphans of war from the war zone is not enough. These orphans require a lifetime of tender care and intensive therapy to reorient their values and world views. Those who are left to battle their way to adulthood often become war lords themselves, knowing no other life and no other way to live life. The wars and conflicts around the world are creating a generation of stone-cold killers who hold the future of their countries in their hands.
Tragically, child soldiers are often drugged with cocaine to make them fight. Not only are these war orphans torn from their homes and families, they are then exposed to a debilitating, mind-altering drug that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Without intervention, the world sees yet another aspect of the global conflicts. Even if they are eventually rescued, their myriad of emotional issues is complicated by an addiction they may not live to see themselves freed from.
Orphans who escape being dragged into war, or used in other ways, end up having to take responsibility for their remaining family members. Children as young as 12 must take charge of younger siblings, performing the daily tasks of finding food and water, providing shelter and protecting what family they have left. These orphans are just as vulnerable, because many have no choice but to turn to prostitution or crime to support their siblings. In many cases, they are constantly on the move, trying to stay ahead of gangs of armed men looking to abduct them. They seek out refugee camps with limited resources; only to have to move on should the soldiers come too close.
Many of these war orphans suffer from extreme cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting in an alarmingly high tendency towards suicide. These children are disillusioned, sometimes abandoned by the families and left to their own devices by the community that in better times would step in to assist.
In 2008, Sierra Leone was found to have the highest incidence of suicide risk in war orphans. Alice Behrendt of Plan International, a non-governmental organization, has studied the suicide risk of children in Togo, Burkina, Faso, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In Koindu, she surveyed 90 orphans and 90 other children, a total of 180. Of those surveyed, 59 percent witnessed a suicide and a stunning 70 percent contemplated or attempted suicide themselves. Out of 90 orphans, only eight were “not deemed a suicide risk.”
War creates distance, and breaks up communities, so tight-knit groups are rare in these times of conflict, raising suspicion. Trust is a rare jewel in such an atmosphere, and it often leaves orphans to fend for themselves, because no one wants to be responsible for them.
There is very little in the way of good news when it comes to orphans of war. They are the smallest victims, no matter their age. It is not an unknown phenomenon, yet assistance is slow in coming. Aid is often confiscated or stolen. Basic sanitation and nutrition are lacking because the required tools and materials are not available or have been taken. There is hope for these children, but it is fleeting. Together, the global community must move as one to resolve the wars that create situations where children are forced to fight battles they did not start and cannot finish.
Commentary by Brandi Tasby