When the victim-turned-idol Sham Al-Bakour, a nine-year-old Syrian girl, was the landslide winner in this year’s Dubai Arab Reading Challenge, beating over 22,000 other children from all over the world, the news not only raised the cheer of Syrians caught up in their country’s Civil War, but also raised an important question.
If the millions of children who have died in other wars had survived, would we now be seeing many thousands or tens of thousands of similar young talents blossoming and contributing to humanity?
The question has come into focus as the war in Ukraine grinds on, targeting civilians and with children suffering the brunt of the conflict. But as the US-based humanitarian aid organisation Save the Children has warned, in this the war is no exception.
“The nature of conflict has changed, putting children in the frontline in new and terrible ways,” it said. “In today’s armed conflicts, there is often no longer a clearly demarcated battlefield, and children’s homes and schools are the battlefield.”
Al-Bakour survived a drive-by shooting in conflict-torn Aleppo in Syria when she was just six-months old, but fate gave her the opportunity to thrive despite the adversity surrounding her and the chance to show the world her exceptional talent and perseverance.
Her father was sadly killed in the shooting, but she and her mother survived. She had to have an operation to remove the remains of the bullets that had struck her, however, these having failed to kill her inner wealth and ironically boosting her inborn faith and determination.
But not all children have survived the violence of conflict and thrived in the way Al-Bakour has. Millions of others in war-torn areas have been killed, wounded, or traumatised as they are driven out of their homelands, leaving behind them devastated homes, schools, and memories.
There are also children who have been pushed into poverty and suffered from droughts, famine, malnutrition, and above all psychological trauma and life-long scars. Others are at risk of sexual violence and recruitment by armed groups, while more and more are trapped on the frontlines of various conflicts without access to humanitarian aid, healthcare, or clean water.
“The harm that is done to children in armed conflicts is not only often more severe than that done to adults, but it also has longer-lasting implications for the children themselves and for their societies,” Save the Children warned.
“Children suffer in different ways than adults, partly because they are physically weaker and also because they have so much at stake. Their physical, mental, and psychosocial development is heavily dependent on the conditions they experience as children.”
This is the case for the thousands of Ukrainian children whose lives have been shattered by the war and are joining the thousands of other children who have suffered in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and various places in Africa.
A recent study conducted by Save the Children on the impact of the conflict in the country on children’s mental health in Syria found that they are “displaying symptoms associated with toxic stress, a type of stress response that occurs when children experience strong, frequent or prolonged adversity without adequate support.”
“This continuous state of toxic stress can have a lifelong impact on children’s mental and physical health,” the organisation said, which is now the case also for millions of children in Ukraine and other conflict zones.
Bombing and shelling were identified as the number one stress factor in the Save the Children study. Eighty nine per cent of the Syrian children surveyed were “more fearful and nervous,” while 71 per cent of the respondents said that their children increasingly suffered from frequent bed-wetting and involuntary urination, both common symptoms of stress among children, according to the Save the Children study.
CHILDREN UNDER ATTACK: Ukraine’s children are currently experiencing the same kind of tragedy that has afflicted Syria. They have been living through a nightmare since the outbreak of the Russian war on their land.
Nine-year old Ukrainian Viktoriia expressed her anxiety when huddling in subway stations with thousands of other children seeking underground refuge from Russian bombings.
“It gets really cold at night, so I need to cuddle up with my mother and grandmother and our cats,” Viktoriia told the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF during her stay in an underground shelter with her family in Ukraine.
“I don’t really feel safe here. The subway protects us against shelling and shrapnel, but if there’s a bomb, it won’t be able to protect us,” Viktoriia went on, saying that even her cats “are under huge stress.”
UNICEF warns that living underground is detrimental to the mental health of children, who remain “cut off from the world.” It said that “the loss of sunlight and fresh air” can lead to “regular nightmares and panic attacks,” particularly among young children.
It has been providing support and education to such children, but it remains questionable whether their scars will ever heal. Polina, a 13-year old Ukraine girl who shares the same underground life with the other children, has decided to study psychology when she grows up in order to find an answer to this question.
“I’m interested in how people react to things, in their minds and their actions,” she told UNICEF. “Like what are the consequences for people of this war? There’s so much fear, fear in people’s eyes. They need help,” she said.
Ukraine’s children have been suffering for months from the escalating devastation and displacement of the war. They are being killed, wounded, or driven away from their homes and schools. Hospitals, orphanages, and other civilian infrastructure have all been under assault and ruined, while many families have been separated from their male breadwinners and have had their lives shattered.
UNICEF estimates that nearly 1,000 children have been killed or injured in Ukraine since the war began earlier this year, but the real number is likely to be higher. A report was published by the UN High Commission for Human Rights in November stating that “408 children have been among the 6,557 people killed since the invasion began, and 750 others were among the 10,074 injured.” However, it said that the “true figures were certainly higher.”
Recent videos featuring child victims in Ukraine have gone viral on social media. One of the most heartbreaking captured the empty stroller of a four-year-old child, Lisa, who was shot dead on her way to a speech therapy class with her mother in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia in July.
Lisa was seen lying dead on the ground beside her teddy bear and empty stroller. She turned out to be one of three children killed when rockets hit the city killing a total of 23 civilians.
Ukrainian child Lisei Rayabukon was similarly shot dead before his 14th birthday. Lisei, who was known for his “honest” and “helpful” attitude and dislike of aggressive sport, was shot dead as his family was fleeing the war despite being given permission to leave in March.
“The Russians gave us permission to leave,” Lisei’s mother Anna told the BBC. “They even waved us goodbye and wished us luck. Then when we were crossing a field, they started firing at us from every direction.”
“I want the world to know about the crimes of Russia. I want every victim to be counted.”
Save the Children says that Ukraine’s child and adolescent victims account for only a fraction of the more than 452 million children worldwide who suffer from the perils of war. More often than not, “the deaths, injuries, and trauma of these little victims at the frontline of war are rarely investigated and the culprits are seldom punished,” it said.
“The war in Ukraine is a tragic reminder that children are repeatedly the worst-affected and often the forgotten victims of war,” Aurelie Lamaziere, an advocacy officer for the group, told the German media. “The war against minors is rarely sufficiently documented, investigated and punished.”
Founder of Save the Children Eglantyne Jebb puts it this way by saying that “every war is a war against children. The past month’s escalating conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine are devastating the rights and health of the country’s 7.5 million children.”
Jebb particularly mentioned the bombings of schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the country. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also reported “more than 70 attacks on the healthcare system in Ukraine, including on a maternity and children’s hospital, in the past month.”
“Health systems, already strained after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, are struggling amid a shortage of essential supplies, attacks on and displacement of health workers, and damage to infrastructure,” it warned in a recent report. “Many children will miss out on routine vaccinations, and those with chronic conditions risk having their treatment interrupted.”
In the meantime, the UN has warned that almost two-thirds of Ukraine’s children have been displaced. It estimates that “4.3 million children, more than half of the country’s population of under 18s, have left their homes, 1.8 million children have fled to neighbouring countries as refugees, and 2.5 million are internally displaced.”
UNICEF has further warned that the displacement of children away from their caregivers is not only traumatic for them, but also risky, since “unaccompanied minors are at particular risk of violence, abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking.”
CHILDREN IMPOVERISHED WORLDWIDE: The Russian war on Ukraine has also caused worldwide economic fallout and rising inflation that has cast a shadow on millions of children worldwide.
According to UN figures, the invasion of Ukraine “has thrown four million children into poverty across Europe and Central Asia, a 19 per cent increase since 2021.”
“Children are bearing the heaviest burden of the economic crisis caused by the war in Ukraine,” UNICEF stated.
Russian and Ukrainian children have been the most affected by such impoverishment since Moscow’s attack on its neighbour in February. Russia accounts for nearly three-quarters of the total increase in the number of children living in poverty due to the Western sanctions imposed on the country, followed by Ukraine, which is now home to half a million additional children living in poverty, according to the UN.
Romania ranked third, recording a further 110,000 children in poverty.
“Children all over the region are being swept up in this war’s terrible wake,” said Afshan Khan, UNICEF regional director for Europe and Central Asia. “If we don’t support these children and families now, the steep rise in child poverty will almost certainly result in lost lives, lost learning, and lost futures.”
Such worries are already all too real for millions of children in many Arab and African countries that are already engulfed in conflicts and with floundering economies in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
Yemeni journalist Fatemah Bawazir told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the situation in Yemen has become even more complex even though it has already been suffering ongoing war for eight years on end.”
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated the suffering of Yemenis who have been grappling with food insecurity in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of nearly two-thirds of the UN humanitarian aid programmes in January this year,” Bawazir said.
“About 45 per cent of Yemenis are currently undernourished, while more than half of the population depends on food aid.”
The Russian-Ukrainian war, along with Yemen’s already floundering economy, has worsened the situation for Yemeni families, as the country’s dependence on grain imports is estimated at about 97 per cent, the largest portion of which (approximately 42 per cent) comes from Russia and Ukraine, according to a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
“The continuation of the war in Ukraine means that Yemenis continue to struggle with feeding their families, especially children, as 400,000 children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition and 2.3 million children under the age of five – two out of every five children in this age group in Yemen – are exposed to the risk of acute malnutrition, as stated in the UNICEF report on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Bawazir said.
She added that the report further expects “a humanitarian catastrophe to occur in Yemen since it relies on humanitarian aid for nearly 12 per cent of its grain imports.”
Nada Jor, a journalist from Sudan, says the situation in Sudan is similarly critical as severe poverty has been particularly grinding since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war.
“Severe poverty has increased,” Jor told the Weekly. “Despite the fact that Sudan depends on wheat as a second food staple after maize, it only cultivates 15 per cent of its consumption needs. This percentage has further decreased due to increased fuel prices resulting from the Ukraine war, all in addition to the ongoing conflicts and deteriorating security in Sudan as well as the effects of climate change.”
Women and children are typically victims. “The burden on women and children has increased,” Jor said, “child labour and migration from rural to urban areas have increased, which is perhaps indirectly linked to the fact that relief aid provided by international organisations has significantly shrunk since the beginning of the Ukraine war.”
In Egypt, many charities have been complaining that the country’s rising inflation rates, compounded by the Ukraine war, have dealt a serious blow to funds.
As the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development stated in a recent report, “Egypt’s targeted economic growth rates declined in addition to high rates of inflation and unemployment and low investment rates in domestic production as a result of the Russian war on Ukraine.”
Ghada Gabr, founder of a charity offering aid to the inhabitants of Istabl Antar, an area of Old Cairo, told the Weekly that “funding has seriously dropped in the light of rising inflation and particularly in the aftermath of the war. This has cast a serious shadow on poor families and children.”
“The financial support provided for poor children’s education has significantly dropped to almost a fifth of what we need, and the funds needed to provide medical aid have also slumped,” Gabr said.
More seriously, the charity-affiliated school that provides free education to children in Istabl Antar may have to close due to a lack of funds and the slump in donations. “The charity is now unable to pay its teachers,” Gabr said matter of factly.
The charity’s workshop that provides vocational training to neighbourhood adolescents, teaching them to make handmade carpets in particular, may also have to close soon due to funding shortages and the rising price of materials.
“The charity can hardly pay its trainers, workers, and teachers, and things are getting worse,” Gabr said.
The consensus is that the Russian war on Ukraine must stop if only to save the world’s children. Children have always been the ones who pay the heaviest price for the wars that they have no stake in, whether they are inside or outside conflict zones.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly