It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. If so, then children are a close second.
Children find themselves trapped in the crossfire, becoming victims in a conflict they did not choose and becoming even more vulnerable when their parents are killed. At least 83 children were killed in conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa during January, the UN children’s agency said.
They died in fighting in Iraq, Libya, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Yemen, UNICEF said in a statement. Some children were killed during suicide attacks.
Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, called the deaths “unacceptable” and said they represented a breach of international law.
“These children have paid the highest price for wars that they have absolutely no responsibility for. Their lives have been cut short; their families forever broken in grief,” he said.
All too often children are recruited to fight. During the Iraq-Iran war, in which close to 1 million people died on both sides, the Iranians would dispatch young boys to march ahead of the older fighters, thus clearing minefields. In exchange the boys were promised an eternal place in paradise.
Violent conflicts affect different children in different ways. Besides the obvious physical wounds caused by exchanges of fire and the unfortunate targeting of civilians in what the military calls “collateral damage,” there are the deep psychological scars that may take years to diagnose.
UNICEF said 59 children were killed in Syria last month. In Yemen, 16 children died in January with UNICEF receiving reports of casualties on a “daily basis,” Cappelaere said.
A suicide attack killed three children in Benghazi, Libya, where three others died while playing near an unexploded bomb that detonated. Other fatalities included a boy shot near Ramallah in the West Bank and a child killed by a bomb in Mosul, Iraq.
Along with those killed in the conflicts, four children were among 16 Syrian refugees who froze to death after fleeing the battle in their country.
Conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa have taken a “devastating toll” on children in the region, Cappelaere said.
“Not hundreds, not thousands but millions more children in the Middle East and North Africa region have their childhood stolen, maimed for life, traumatised, arrested and detained, exploited, prevented from going to school and from getting the most essential health services; denied even the basic right to play,” he said.
Once, while on a radio programme in Washington talking about war in the Middle East, I was asked if there would ever be peace in the Middle East. The host added: “You have 30 seconds to reply before we go to commercial break.” I had half a minute to round up my nearly 30 years of experience covering violent conflicts in the Middle East.
My best effort at a comprehensive reply was as follows: “Yes, I do believe there will be peace in the Middle East someday but for that to happen the antagonists must have greater love for their children than the hate they currently harbour of their enemy.”
I never really understood wars although I have covered several of them as a photojournalist before transitioning into a correspondent and an analyst. After the birth of my first child, I understood the willingness of engaging an enemy in battle even less. I would be willing to do just about anything to prevent my son going to fight in a war. However, what I found to be quite common in the conflicts I covered was the ease with which these children were sent off to do battle.
The Geneva Conventions, which set out the laws of conflict, call for the protection of children during war. All 193 members of the United Nations ratified the conventions. But how many countries respect the conventions?
Those are depressing statistics from the Middle East. Those are unacceptable statistics from the Middle East. The unacceptable truth, as told by statistics from the Middle East, is, as Cappelaere said: “We collectively continue failing to stop the war on children.”