Innocence in the Age of War

Aseel Saif 

photo: Iraqi boys in a refugee camp in Baghdad play with toy guns. Photograph: Namir Noor-Eldeen/Reuters

Has the age of innocence disappeared or are we simply in a rush to reach adulthood? For many, having a childhood is considered a luxury and even perhaps an alien concept. Children who have been born and raised to only know life within a warzone may have never seen or known what a true childhood is, and their understanding of innocence is most certainly not what we First World dwellers perceive it as. According to research published by Save the Children around “357 million children live in war and conflict zones, an increase of roughly 75 percent from the early 1990s”. To put this into context the current population of the US is around 325 million people.

Many of these children are forced to ‘grow up’ to cope with the hostile environment they are in. In fact, there have been many studies into the way communities have evolved to accept this change. Julie Peteet works with Palestinian men and boys who were detained unfairly and who considered this as their ‘rite of passage’ (Peteet, 2006). She claimed that any male who had been detained, regardless of his age or social status, held more authority in comparison with those who had not. In Palestine, a traumatic experience such as being unfairly detained and most likely tortured is not only celebrated but seen as a rite of passage for individuals; the oppressor has taken away their innocence, and society, as a coping mechanism, masks this as an accomplishment. As sad as it may sound, it has become a norm and something celebrated. Individuals and especially children in these situations should be treated for post-traumatic stress as opposed to making them think it is acceptable to go through such a thing. Mental illness in warzones takes a different form, and due to the lack of infrastructure and services to counter these problems, children are forced to deal with these conflicting emotions and experiences without due care. One of the biggest research studies conducted by Save the Children in Syria, assessing the effects of war, showed that more than 70% of the children they interviewed had symptoms of toxic stress. The study showed that even the slightest of sounds such as moving a chair would trigger anxiety and fear, as it resembled the sounds of aeroplanes. Even worse, the research showed staggering numbers of children attempting suicide, with death seeming a better option for them. It is unfortunate that mental illness in countries such as Yemen, Syria and Palestine is not given the same attention it is given in the West. 

Children being murdered has lost its charm, and the news is most certainly not interested. In fact, many people complain to OFCOM about such images pre-watershed as they are too horrific. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, the images of children being washed up on the beach or those covered in rubble because of their houses being destroyed by drones or explosions has become so normal that we have become desensitised to it. And that’s a problem. Children have long been targeted in wars in many different ways because they represent hope, future and innocence; ideas that are constantly being manipulated by those with power. Even though we live in the age of supposed international humanitarian law, we still see child soldiers, starving children, orphans and children with lifelong mental illness, all because of war they had no say in. Innocent children for decades have been used as weapons of war and not only by the developing countries but beyond it. If we look as far back as the 1800’s Napoleon used teenage conscripts. Even in the First World War the youngest soldier was a mere 8 years old. Only recently did the world wake up to this phenomenon and begin international efforts to eradicate it, which makes you wonder: why? 

A child, for example, holds the future. They have seen what cruel adults have done and have the potential to bring it to an end. Perhaps for this very reason, they have become the true threat. Children represent a culture and history that may not necessarily have been physically recorded. They have the power to pass down the culture they inherited and continue its legacy for years. They have the key to keep a community and memory alive. But again, if in war the aim is to exterminate ‘a people’, you target their future; and that is their children and youth. 

As much as government try to cover up their untimely deaths as collateral damage, one cannot ignore the fact that the very dwellings of children, such as schools, hospitals, homes and playgrounds, are being systematically targeted; it makes you think that it is all a strategic move. We live in an era where in one click anything you can think can be made available to you. And yet if we look at Yemen, one of the worst humanitarian crises in the whole world, children are dying of simple illnesses such as diarrhoea. Something that could be fixed with clean water and regular medicine that is considered a basic human right is not being delivered in this one click! The closure of schools, and the pressure and lack of medical aid to the country have meant children and families are being robbed of their futures. Malnutrition in Yemen has become an epidemic, and the first to suffer are the young and frail. 

Whilst the new generation in the First World are in a hurry to grow up, pump their lips with Botox and take that one picture on Instagram to make all their followers jealous, children in warzones are still fighting to stay alive. Having a childhood is a basic human right that we have taken for granted for too long. 

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