Children and the Aftermath of War

Article excerpt

* What happens when wars end? Historians have written endlessly on wars' origins, far less on their aftermath. We seem happy to explode myths and deconstruct images, yet strangely indifferent to the very real social and psychological problems that wars leave behind them. As the conflict in Bosnia gives way to an uneasy peace, the question of how people rebuild their lives and communities assumes new urgency. Have historians nothing to contribute here? Fifty years ago, as in Bosnia now, the ending of war left society confronting bitter conflicts over property, issues of violence and justice, separation and loss. A conference at the University of Sussex this July, After the War was Over, will bring together historians anthropologists, psychiatrists and lawyers, as well as former partisans, journalists and relief workers, to discuss these issues.

Among the topics we will address is the impact of war on children. UNICEF estimates that more than half the children in Sarajevo were shot at during the war, while in Mostar nearly three-quarters had their homes attacked and over half had a parent wounded or killed. Half a century ago, during the last great European civil war -- in Greece between 1946 and 1949 -- children were also among the main victims. Many had suffered bereavement during the Nazi Occupation. Their plight increased as fighting between the government and the Left flared up in 1946.

After Liberation, the number of orphans in Greece grew rapidly to nearly half-a-million, with children roaming the streets scavenging for food. Some sold lottery tickets or became boot-blacks or thieves. Nancy Crawshaw, a British freelance photo-journalist who travelled through the country between 1946 and 1949, met those at the bottom of the heap, street urchins like Haralambos P. His father had died during the terrible famine of 1941-42, his mother had followed in 1946. He lived rough in central Athens, sleeping out in all weathers, begging for scraps from the soldiers outside a military camp.

The most unfortunate ones, like P., could not get into the state orphanages, because you needed political influence to be admitted. Nor could he enter one of the fifty Child Towns, founded by Queen Frederika, because his plight had nothing to do with the guerilla war. These Child Towns were a well-publicised attempt to win back the nation's youth from Communism: attracting charitable donations from the Athens elite, they were highly-funded and efficient. But they were, if anything, over-resourced. They could house only some 18,000 children, barely four per cent of those orphans in need. Inside the state orphanages, conditions were harsher and facilities were poor; often life was little better for the young inmates than in the slum encampments that ringed the urban centres.

Foreign charities also played a prominent part in looking after war-affected children. The British Quaker Relief set up a training school for country girls outside Salonika in the autumn of 1945. Housed initially in two wooden huts left behind by the Germans, the school was run by a British couple and five Greek teachers who gave their teenage charges a thorough training in domestic science, first aid and child welfare. The pupils were hand-picked, in order to select potential leaders who might return to their villages and help transform traditional ways. This modernising impetus was only partially successful, as many girls wanted to stay in the cities. But the goal of improving social conditions was linked to politics, for the school's organisers believed that one reason why so many village women supported the guerrillas was that they saw the armed struggle as an escape from `peasant solitude' and `confused the brandishing of a step-gun with emancipation'. Within the school, no political discussion was permitted; as a result, `girls from rival sectors of each village live and work happily together in a Quaker atmosphere of reconciliation'. …