UNICEF child protection experts say targeting schools is a war crime

© Reuters/Eduard Kornienko
A grieving mother, Fatima Tetova, holds her daughters’ portraits in front of their coffins during a memorial in Beslan, Russia. Fatima’s daughters lost their lives in the recent school siege.

NEW YORK, 10 September 2004 – Fatima Tetova was just an ordinary mother of two daughters until the Beslan school siege changed it all. Her daughters, Irina, 13, and Alina, 12, were among the many hostages taken by armed militants at the school, and both lost their young lives during the ensuing violence. On 5 September, Fatima held a memorial service for both girls. All that remain are her terrible grief, her memories and a few photographs.

“UNICEF is outraged at what has happened to children in Russia and what is happening to children worldwide when children are not safe in their schools or on their way to school,” says UNICEF Child Protection Officer Pamela Shifman. “Targeting schools is a war crime. Children should never be targeted in times of war."

“Schools absolutely must be the first line of the protective environment for children. We know that schools are critically important to the growth and development of every child, and when schools are targeted in this way, it debases all of us.”

UNICEF’s Executive Director Carol Bellamy says that the targeting of children in conflicts is utterly unacceptable, incomprehensible and senseless. UNICEF is calling on the world to preserve schools as safe havens for children, as well as to respect the sanctity of childhood, and to severely punish those who commit such heinous crimes against children.

Psychosocial impact on children

As the Beslan school siege came to an end, officials at UNICEF said they were extremely worried about its effect on children. After such a terrible experience the aftershock and pain can linger for many years to come.

“The big problem of what has happened in Russia is that the whole community is terribly affected. It’s not only the children, and the people who were in that school, but the overall environment. Imagine a small community with so many people who died in such a violent way! We need to have the whole community recover, to go on with their lives as much as possible,” says Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s Senior Adviser for Children in Armed Conflicts.

He says time alone will not heal the wounds caused by the experience, especially where children are concerned. “We need to help the children, but also make sure that their parents, teachers, and all the adults around them can give them a sense of safety and comfort. It will be difficult and may take some time.”

Over the years, UNICEF has gained invaluable experience and developed many practical strategies in helping children cope with various forms of disaster.



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10 September 2004: Interviews with UNICEF’s Child Protection Officer, Pamela Shifman, and Senior Adviser for Children in Armed Conflicts, Manuel Fontaine.

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