With the wars and upheavals that are taking place in Libya, Syria, Yemen and other Arab countries, more and more members of the upcoming Arab generations have become entangled in a world that revolves around weapons, shootings, missing people and other aspects of conflict.
“The region is host to the highest number of children in need; in fact, it is the region that has the highest number of children born into conflict,” commented UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) regional chief of communications Juliette Touma. “One in five children in the region right now live in conflict-affected settings,” she added.
For those old enough to have known the calm before the storm, they also suffer from the shock of the current turmoil. For those born under the present airstrikes, they are growing up without being able to grasp the idea of a world free of daily violence.
Even when such children start playing, their play often consists of making up scenarios involving violence and weapons, with this play being a representation of how the dangerous environment surrounding them mirrors their day-to-day lives.
“When I observed some Libyan children born into the time of war, it really shocked me. They were asking me if we ever hear bombings in London, and when I replied that we don’t hear any bombings, they are so surprised. They just can’t imagine a world without war,” said one London-based child psychologist after a recent visit to Libya.
Children are often the most direct victims of warfare, and they are often caught up in horrific scenes that no child or adult should ever have to see. For such children, safety is a luxury that many of them have never been fortunate enough to experience.
“Children have been witnessing attacks on their own homes when they were sleeping in their beds, attacks on their schools and attacks on playgrounds. No place is safe for children living in conflict zones,” Touma commented.
Children as young as two and four-year-old have had to come up with ways to deal with loud explosions and sudden thuds. “During the night, the attacks get really bad and that’s when their fear starts to come out. They start explaining that if they close their eyes the attacks will stop,” the child psychologist said, preferring to speak anonymously.
“They’re so young, but they have had to come up with these coping mechanisms just to be able to sleep at night,” she added.
Touma explained that the psychosocial support programme sponsored by UNICEF provides for children in war zones such as Syria where the UN agency has provided 500 child-friendly places for children that help them to reconnect with childhood.
However, Touma highlighted that such work is often very challenging and sometimes they can do little apart from reduce a child’s trauma and anxiety as a result of what he or she may have suffered. In some cases, the level of shock and distress is so great that the damage is more or less irreversible.
Children who have grown up among the wars and conflicts in the Arab world have often been exposed to an extremely high dose of trauma that in the long run can cause a wide range of psychological problems as well as permanent damage.
Syrian mother-of-two Nour Ibrahim used to live a stable life with her family in Aleppo in northern Syria. She studied while nurturing her children.
Then things took a major turn. “I left Syria in 2012 when the disturbances started to take place in Aleppo,” Ibrahim said. “One of the scenes I recall is when I was with my children outside our house and a tank drove right past us followed by the sound of bullets and planes overhead.”
“My children witnessed this, and my youngest son was in total shock and refused to move. He sat down in the middle of the street. It was at that moment that I made the decision to leave everything behind, my job and our home, and move to Turkey,” she said.
When she asked her son about what he remembered from those days in Syria, he said that there had been nights when men with weapons would bang on the doors of houses. If there were no people inside, they would force their way in.
Ibrahim did not want her children to grow up with a war going on around them or for them to witness violence on a daily basis. The family left Syria at the beginning of the conflict and was able to find refuge in Turkey.
Lawyer and father-of-two Assem Al-Zaabi also left Syria to find refuge in Jordan away from the war. His oldest son, now 10 years old, still remembers the sounds of bombs and airstrikes that used to haunt the family in Syria.
They consider themselves to be the lucky ones, despite their having had to flee their homeland. Other families have had to take their children back to Syria as they could not find jobs abroad to provide for their children and were not able to claim refugee status.
Children in different age groups and different places react differently to the catastrophic situations they may find themselves in. While many children manage to protect themselves from the noise of attacks and chaos, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Spokesperson in Yemen Nathalie Bekdache has noticed another more recognisable reaction from the children she has worked with in the country, also torn by civil war.
“Many children are traumatised; they have strong reactions to noises that may sound like warfare, including the slamming of doors. They also have nightmares,” she said. In some cases, such children develop health conditions, the most common being post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD can be triggered by a traumatic event, and those who are diagnosed with it often experience nightmares, flashbacks and uncontrollable thoughts about the incident as well as severe anxiety. PTSD can last a very long time, and in some cases can last for the rest of an individual’s life.
Many children who live in today’s conflict-ridden Arab countries have had to grow up before their time. They have become aware of vicious political and military conflicts and have had to care for their siblings in the absence of their parents. They have had to take responsibility and work to help provide for their families.
According to the child psychologist who has been working with them, they have often developed a mentality in which childhood play and anything related to childhood is seen as a waste of time. “It is drilled into them that life is all about survival,” she said.
The ICRC has been working with many children caught up in war zones, and this independent humanitarian organisation is present in over 90 countries to help those living amid conflict and violence by promoting humanitarian law and helping to boost emergency responses.
ICRC delegates in Yemen such as Nathalie Bekdache have reported on children who have been stripped of their childhood by war, such as 13-year-old Yasser Mohamed who lives in poverty in north-west Yemen. Due to the conflict that has descended on his hometown, Mohamed has had to abandon his education and resell plastic bottles for a living in order to help provide for his family of seven.
Mohamed is not the only Yemeni child who has had to turn to work to survive. Thirteen-year-old twins Amal and Ayman also sell snacks in the area while attending lessons when they can in order to provide for their families.
Some children have lost out on growing up as a result of the war, including on play and other activities. Instead, they have become politically involved from a young age in activities that take huge chunks out of their childhoods.
If it is not the need to work to help support their families that has stolen the childhood of these children, then illnesses and malnourishment have done the same. Many children in Yemen have made the headlines as a result, including young Yemeni girl Amal who died of malnutrition.
Yemeni journalist Bassam Al-Qadi described five-year-old Diana Qaid Al-Sayed and 13-year-old Baker Abdo Mohamed Arjalah who both died of cholera in front of their parents, when ordinarily this is a treatable disease.
“I met a boy, Adam, in Yemen in December last year who was ten years old but who only weighed 10 kg. A few days after our visit he died,” Touma said.
The future of these children, their present wracked by war and malnutrition, is far from clear. Whether in Syria, Yemen, Libya or other Arab countries affected by civil conflict, these children have little choice but to take one day at a time.
Even if they manage to flee the conflict and start from scratch elsewhere, they are sometimes not able to adapt to the new calmer setting.
When two children from a war zone were sent to the UK and put in regular schools, they started to behave as if they would never be able to escape the trauma they had experienced, for example. They had difficulty working with others, and they could not respond to their new environment due to their confusion and anxiety.
As the state of war continues in many Arab countries today, questions are increasingly being asked whether children brought up in such conditions will ever be able to forget the horrors they have seen and live stable and contented lives.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.