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War relief for children

Healing the wounds of war-torn societies is a long and difficult undertaking. The immediate demand is to ensure that people, and especially children, are adequately fed, have access to safe water and are protected against disease. But recent experience has underlined the importance of five other tasks: caring for unaccompanied children; demobilizing child soldiers; healing the mental wounds of war; restarting schools; and embarking on education for peace.

>Unaccompanied children—One of the most urgent tasks is attending to the needs of unaccompanied children. In 1994, an estimated 114,000 Rwandese children were lost, abandoned, orphaned or otherwise separated from their parents. Some 70,000 were displaced within Rwanda, while most of the remainder crossed the border into Tanzania or Zaire. Many of these children were taken in by other families—some families took up to 9 or 10 children. Some children ended up in makeshift centres or former orphanages. Others ended up in special centres set aside for unaccompanied children in refugee camps. One of the risks of offering specific facilities for such children, however, is that their parents may be tempted to deliberately abandon their children in the hope that they will be better cared for by others.


Photo: UNICEF and NGOs work together to help child refugees -- starting with vaccinations and checking children's weight-for-age. Growth monitoring is vital for detecting malnutrition, which, even when mild, threatens children's lives. ©


The ultimate aim, of course, should be to reunite children with their families. In Rwanda, Save the Children , UNICEF, UNHCR and other partners have arranged with ICRC to standardize the process of data collection and tracing. This has included working with the Kodak company to enter photos of the children along with their details into computers and distributing printouts throughout the refugee camps. This kind of activity can be supplemented with information broadcast by radio. ICRC and the British Broadcasting Corporation have launched this type of tracing programme in Uganda. And the organization Doctors Without Borders has a similar programme with Radio Agatachya in Zaire. If the parents cannot be found, then members of the extended family are sought. Failing this, attempts are made to arrange for fostering or adoption by families from the same cultural group. Placing a child in an orphanage should only be a last resort.

>Demobilizing child soldiers—Child soldiers may find it particularly hard to emerge from war and build a new life. Many will have lost their families or have been forced to terrorize their own communities, making it impossible to return home. They may also find it difficult to live without the power that wielding a gun can bring, and will be tempted to drift into violence and crime. However, efforts are being made to demobilize child soldiers in a number of countries, including Liberia, Mozambique and Rwanda. Some children are held first in transit camps to help them adjust to peace before returning to their communities and perhaps to school. Others are being offered training so they will have a more realistic chance of employment.

>Healing the mental wounds—Many child soldiers will have undergone horrific experiences that will live with them for the rest of their lives. For these, and many other children, one of the most important aspects of postwar development is psychological rebuilding.

Given the numbers of people affected, this task may seem daunting. But in recent years, much more has been learned about what can be achieved even with limited resources. In the past, treatment has concentrated on Western models using large numbers of highly paid staff to counsel individual children. While this may have helped a few children, it has proved far too slow and expensive a process to deal with the scale of the problem. It also has the drawback that Western advisers may know little about the local culture.

A better alternative is to train local people who can develop community-based approaches. Thus in Rwanda in 1994-1995, more than 2,000 Rwandese were trained as counsellors and caregivers. As a result of this work, around 70,000 people have participated so far in 'expression activities', such as singing, dancing, drama, drawing and writing, to ease the pain of their memories. Similarly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, local professionals have been trained to screen children and identify symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

The long-drawn-out insurgency war in the Philippines has also been a traumatic experience for many children. There, it has been found that adults often avoid talking about violent incidents with their children because they find it too painful. They also tend to underestimate the damage done to children. In this case, too, it has been found that children have to be encouraged to express their pain in the ways with which they are most comfortable—through art or drama or gentle conversation.63

>Restarting schools—Another loss for children during wartime is the collapse of the education system. In Mozambique, damage to the education infrastructure left two thirds of the 2 million primary school age children without access to education.

A good way of returning children's lives to some semblance of structure and routine is to restart education as soon as possible. This does not require formal buildings or courses; education can be restarted even in refugee camps. In Rwanda, tens of thousands of children were able to start primary classes within two months of the end of hostilities through 'school in a box', a collection of basic supplies and materials for learning.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, international agencies have made great efforts to help local authorities reopen schools, even in the worst situations. In Sarajevo during the siege, individual dedicated teachers continued classes in their homes, in basements, or in other safe places, until schools were officially restarted in March 1993. In east Mostar, where there has been no electricity, children have been studying by candlelight with only the most basic materials.64

Attending classes, in whatever surroundings, can help children start the process of recovery, healing and reconciliation. In addition to conventional school lessons, they can be taught simple survival techniques, the dangers of minefields, and conflict resolution.

In Liberia, readmission to local schools lies at the hub of a demobilization programme for child soldiers, which draws on community- based rehabilitation initiatives, vocational training centres, drop-in centres and halfway houses.

>Education for peace—When schools are functioning there is also the opportunity to make a longer-term contribution through 'education for peace'—allowing children to develop mutual understanding, to resolve differences without recourse to violence and to show how human diversity can be embraced rather than become the basis for barbaric behaviour.

In Lebanon in 1989, UNICEF negotiated with a number of armed factions to transport children from different religious and cultural backgrounds to a two-week summer camp. Through sports, creative workshops and other activities, the children were invited to question their values, beliefs and biases while learning conflict resolution skills. Since then, more than 240 NGOs have undertaken education for peace activities, and the Lebanese Government has included peace education in the national curriculum.

Education for peace has also been taken up in other countries. In Liberia, a Children's Peace Theatre has been touring since 1992, promoting unity and reconciliation. In Mozambique, a Peace Circus uses art, dance and theatre to demonstrate that differences do not have to be settled at the point of a gun.

Though the underlying purpose of all of these programmes is the same, they have to be developed by people in affected communities to match particular cultural needs and circumstances. Many of the same principles are also being applied in schools in a number of other countries to counter racism and animosity towards immigrants and to foster the value of tolerance.


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