All over the world, studies have increasingly and consistently shown how children bear the heaviest cost of war. It was reported that during the early Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1989, the Iraqi army performed indiscriminate massacre, detention, and torture of Kuwaiti citizens, subjecting thousands of children to become unwilling victims and witnesses to the destruction of their homes and community and the violent death of family members.
In Lebanon, an alarming number of children experienced war and combat exposure, bereavement, displacement, separation from parents, and extreme deprivation.
In Sarajevo, a comprehensive study reported that 66 percent of children had lost family members due to war.
But perhaps the more alarming information to be found in recent literature on the effects of war on children is the documented existence of child soldiers in conflict areas all over the world. In 2000, the number of child soldiers in Asia alone was pegged at a conservative estimate of 80,000, not counting those in Aceh and the Timor territories.
There are disquieting reports of this phenomenon most notably in Mozambique where children as young as ten were reported to have been forcibly removed from their homes and trained to be killing machines by the Mozambican National Resistance (MBR). Child soldiers in El Salvador, Liberia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Palestine Occupied Territories have also been the subject of early studies.
In the Philippines, in particular, media footages show youngsters in MILF and Abu Sayyaf enclaves and the New People's Army (NPA) camps brandishing or training in the use of high-powered weapons.
The all-out war declared by the Estrada Administration peaked in the summer of 2000, with heavy military operations in the major MILF mass base areas of Camp Bilal in Lanao del Norte, Camp Busra in Lanao del Sur, Camps Rajamuda and Usman in North Cotabato, and Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao. Heavy aerial and surface bombings were followed with ground assaults and mopping up operations that left several towns devastated, causing massive evacuations of residents.
Looting, desecration of mosques, and atrocities committed on civilians, to include rape of women and harassment of residents, were reported and sketchily documented, with no less than the former President flaunting military garb while feasting on roast pig as the Philippine flag flew in the tower of the mosque in what was formerly a Moro camp. How a man handles tactical victories tells of his character. Our Katipunan forefathers were turning in their graves.
Most affected by the internal displacement were the children. Sixty percent of the displaced persons who had sought refuge in cramped makeshift evacuation centers were Muslim children, according to reports from media and relief groups put out in mid 2000.
Kalinaw Mindanaw, a consortium of church groups, human rights organizations, peace advocates, and other civil society organizations found that the 2000 war had devastating effects on children, rendering them "unwilling witness to the killing of their parents and neighbors, the burning of their houses and devastation of their farm lands."
An untold number of children died on the arduous road to the safety of the evacuation centers as bombs fell and bullets flew in their path. In evacuation centers where supplies were scarce, children went hungry and succumbed to diseases like respiratory tract infection and skin diseases, diarrhea, and other diseases that, under ordinary circumstances, would have been preventable.
Several studies have supported the notion that the exposure of children to intense stress aggression and heightened fear might be causally related to increased risk of developing psychosocial problems. Children in war torn areas have been noted to suffer from psychosomatic disorders, anxiety and depression signs, aggressive and regressive behaviors, withdrawal from society, and emotional instability.
The children among war refugees also experience stress symptoms like sleeping and eating disorders, separation fears, withdrawal and aggression. Some studies indicate that the children's stress symptoms are a function of their mothers' adjustment to the conditions of internal displacement. Right. Most women could hold this world together if most men and a few women would only stop fighting. Children in collective shelter like evacuation centers are at greater mental health risk than their peers housed with host families.
One study found that depression, violence and antisocial behavior consequences of extreme violence – such as torture – in war-displaced children below 15 years old. Other symptoms include hyperactivity, anxiety, and psychosomatic disturbances.
The 1989 UN study on the psychological profile of Filipino children in conflict areas pointed to displacement as one of the more traumatizing consequences that the young experienced. Emotional traumatization was indicated not to be necessarily an effect of armed conflict per se, but rather of its more long-term disruption of the affected community's family, economic and social life.
At a glance, the children in evacuation centers may appear to be asymptomatic, but in the course of psychosocial processing, their horrible cognitions and grave emotional trauma are likely to surface. Children may suffer from war-related illnesses, with many exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).
For most kids, the experience of war is a rude awakening from the cocoon of childhood, taking its toll on their health, family life, economic security, and irrevocable loss of precious innocence. Least studied perhaps is the breakdown of social relations as the children's war-related experiences turn them against soldiers and combatants, some of whom were among their network of social support, having been their friends or even relatives prior to war. When your social support betrays you, could you ever learn again to trust?
(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] "Send at the risk of a reply," she says).