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The trauma of war

Every conflict forces children to live through some terrible experiences. Indeed, millions of children have been present at events far beyond the worst nightmares of most adults. In Sarajevo, where almost one child in four has been wounded in the conflict, UNICEF conducted a survey of 1,505 children in the summer of 1993. It found that 97 per cent of the children had experienced shelling nearby, 29 per cent felt 'unbearable sorrow', and 20 per cent had terrifying dreams. Some 55 per cent had been shot at by snipers, and 66 per cent had been in a situation where they thought they would die.39

Another survey in 1995 in Angola found that 66 per cent of children had seen people being murdered, 91 per cent had seen dead bodies, and 67 per cent had seen people being tortured, beaten or hurt. In all, more than two thirds of children had lived through events in which they had defied death.40


Photo: Children are at particular risk from malnutrition because of war. A study in a war zone attributed only 2 per cent of deaths to violence; most are caused by the interaction of malnutrition and infection. ©


This type of experience can produce a range of symptoms. After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Dr. Albert Nambaje, clinical psychologist at the National Trauma Recovery Centre, reported: "Among the symptoms manifested by children are nightmares, difficulty in concentrating, depression and a sense of hopelessness about the future." The UN Commission on Human Rights' Special Rapporteur on former Yugoslavia similarly reports on interviews with children: "Memories of the event remain with them... causing extreme nightmares, daily intrusive flashbacks of the traumatic events, fear, insecurity and bitterness."41

It is universally true that horrific experiences are so deeply disturbing, so overwhelming, that a child will try to suppress bad memories rather than confront them. But many trauma researchers believe that it is the repression of memories and feelings that is at the heart of trauma suffering in both the short and long term.

Time does not heal trauma. A child must be helped to express suffering and to confront bad memories, with the support and guidance of an empathetic and informed adult. The very act of talking or writing about, or even acting out, traumatic events is a way for a child to begin healing and start on the road to recovery.

Every culture has its own way of dealing with traumatic experiences. In South-East Asia, studies of Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese people show that each has very different conceptions of psychosocial distress. And much also depends on the family circumstances of the children, as well as on their age and the nature of their exposure to traumatic events.

In all cultures, one of the most important factors is the cohesion of the family and community, and the degree of nurture and support that children receive. Indeed, one of the most significant war traumas of all, particularly for younger children, is simply separation from parents—often more distressing than the war activities themselves. 42

Adolescents also face particular problems. They are at a time of life when they are undergoing many physical and emotional changes. In some ways, they are even more vulnerable than younger children since they recognize better the significance of the events unfolding around them. Aid workers in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been encountering adolescents who have 'weeping crises', who attempt suicide, who are in a state of depression and who have increased levels of aggression and delinquency.43

Figure 1: Angolan children in war
Figure 1: Some 200 children 8 to 16 years of age, one third of whom were girls, were interviewed about their war experiences in a recent study carried out by the Christian Children's Fund. Two thirds of the children were natives of Huambo and Bie provinces; the rest were from eight other provinces. The interviews took place in schools, at camps for the displaced, on the streets and in orphanages. While the children selected were from a wide range of environments, they were not a representative sample. Nevertheless, the 200 interviews report traumatic experiences undoubtedly shared by many other Angolan children. Source: Study by Christian Children's Fund, 1995.

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