I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end.
THESE ARE THE words of a 15-year-old girl. They could have been written yesterday, by a child in Bosnia or Afghanistan. They were written 50 years ago in the Netherlands, by Anne Frank, who died shortly afterwards in a Nazi concentration camp.
Since the end of the Second World War 47 years ago, there have been 149 major wars, which have killed more than 23 million people. This is double the number of war deaths in the 19th century, and seven times greater than in the 18th century. Among the millions killed in those 149 wars, many, many were children.
It is especially sad when children die or are wounded in wars because they are caught in a crossfire that is not of their making. Obviously, children are never consulted when adults decide to fight wars. Nevertheless, millions of children are killed, disabled, orphaned, separated from their families, and physically and psychologically traumatised due to armed conflicts. Life is not easy even for those who survive the fighting, for they often re-live the terror of battle. The deeply disturbing experience can leave children fearful, insecure and bitter for the rest of their lives.
The statistics are quite numbing. Over just the past ten years of fighting around the world, 2 million children were killed, 4 to 5 million were disabled, more than a million were orphaned or separated from their families, some 10 million were hurt psychologically, and 12 million were left homeless.
Wars also affect children indirectly because fighting disrupts the services taken for granted, such as schooling, health care, and the distribution of food. Most of the children who die in wars are not killed by bombs or bullets. Instead, they have succumbed to starvation or sickness.
Millions of children who have never even seen a gun are also affected by fighting, because wars force governments to squander money on arms and ammunition which could have been spent on textbooks and hospital beds. Most recent wars have been fought in Africa and Asia, by countries that can least afford them, countries like Sudan, Cambodia, Angola and Afghanistan.
War forces children to experience things that those living in countries that are at peace would never imagine. A 1995 survey of children in war-torn Angola found that 66 percent of the children had seen people murdered, 91 percent had seen dead bodies, and 67 percent had seen people tortured or beaten.
With so many conflicts raging in our own region, surely, if a survey were conducted, we would find that many South Asian children have horrifying experiences similar to those of Angolan children. In northern Sri Lanka, a war between the government and Tamil rebels has been going on for 11 years, and in Afghanistan, numerous factions have been fighting each other for more than 17 years.
Other flashpoints in South Asia, from where nearly every day, news of fighting and mayhem is received, include the Kashmir region, Karachi in Pakistan, and the entire Indian Northeast. The headlines are so regular that we tend to lose interest. However, this does not make the violence any less real for those boys and girls who find themselves dodging bullets and taking cover from bombardments.
One of the saddest things to happen in recent years has been the use of children as soldiers— some as young as six years old. Whereas in the past, lethal weapons were heavy and cumbersome, nowadays light assault rifles can be held and fired by boys who are not even in their teens. The guns most in use are the Russian-made AK-47 and the American M-16.
The men who plan wars find children very useful as soldiers because they can be bullied and forced to follow orders. Children are less likely to run away, and they do not demand salaries, unlike adult soldiers. In 1986 alone, as many as 200,000 children became gun-toting soldiers. In Sri Lanka and in Burma, militant groups have especially used child soldiers, depriving them of their right to go to school, to play, and to live with family.
In Sri Lanka´s north, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been active in using school children in the battle field. In Burma, parents volunteer their children for the rebel Karen Army because the guerrillas provide clothes and two square meals a day. It is estimated that 900 out of the 5000-strong Karen Army are boys under 15.
World leaders talk ceaselessly about the need for peace. And yet, all over, children continue to pay the price for the follies of adults. When will this stop? When will the world grow up?
OF MINES AND MINORS
Of the two types of land mines -anti-tank and anti-personnel-the latter are most dangerous to children because they explode with the application of even the gentle pressure of a child´s hand or foot. In 64 countries around the world, there are about 110 million land mines still lodged in the ground-waiting.
Currently, about 800 people die every month because of explod¬ing land mines. Thousands of others are maimed or disfigured for life.
A land mine can be bought for $3 and to clear a single one of these hidden killers can cost between $ 300 to $ 1000. Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
Information for this column has been taken primarily from Unicef´s The State of the World´s Children 1996, which focuses on children in war.