Children of War

By Macosko, Evan | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Children of War


Macosko, Evan, Harvard International Review


Conflict's Impact on Youth

On July 27, 1985, a 15-year-old Ugandan boy and his mother went to lock the gate of their house after hearing news of a military coup.

A young girl who was a friend of the family came running toward their house, chased by a soldier. The boy's mother explained to the soldier that the girl was innocent. The soldier asked for money. When the mother turned around to get some money, the soldier opened fire, emptying an entire magazine into the woman, right in front of her son. The boy vowed revenge, and pledged that he would never offer to help another human being again.

The United Nations reports that two million of the four million people killed in "conflict situations" in the past decade have been children. Over ten million children have suffered severe psychological trauma from witnessing or experiencing violence. Statistics about such trauma are rarely cited and are generally overlooked by international relief agencies that administer aid to civilians caught in conflict; far more frequently quoted are the numbers of displaced, injured, or starving people. Psychological trauma can, however, be even more devastating to a society than physical damage because the effects last longer and are often poorly addressed by both the local and international communities.

In the short term, psychological trauma can induce stress, autistic behavior, shock, aggression, a sense of emptiness, and a loss of self-esteem. For several months after being injured by Serbian shells, one boy from Sarajevo would scream uncontrollably and run to the safety of the basement when he heard the whistling of his grandfather's snoring. Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist Carl E.Tayor recounts the story of a Bosnian child who became autistic and took to wandering the fringes of a refugee camp after her father and brothers were machine-gunned in front of her. In a survey by psychiatrist Syed Arshad Husain of 500 Bosnian children randomly sampled during the siege of Sarajevo, 92 percent said they wanted to kill themselves. Furthermore, 94 percent of Bosnian children in this study said that they were ugly, and 90 percent claimed that the terrible events that were happening in their lives were their own fault.

Perhaps the most devastating short-term effect of wartime trauma on children is the development of aggression toward peers and agents of authority. One Ugandan child who witnessed her mother's decapitation wrote an essay for War, Violence, and Children in Uganda describing how she later began "dancing and singing" after she saw an enemy soldier die. Researchers have found that Israeli and Palestinian children who had been subject to long periods of chronic violence were "favorably inclined toward war" and "actively demonstrated their loyalty to their 'nation."'

Because research on child psychology during war began only 25 years ago, the long-term effects of childhood experience with violence are not well understood. However, it is generally believed that the wide variety of short-term effects give way to a general propensity toward violence in adults. Studies, including several by Taylor, have shown that children exposed to violence are more likely to desire revenge for past injuries and to view abnormally violent situations as normal. Children who exhibit feelings of emptiness and shock in childhood often grow up accepting violence as a fact of life rather than as a problem to be corrected. …

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