A world of suffering for 20 million children,left orphaned, abused and brutalised by war

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The Independent Online

Click here for image - Around the World They are the most defenceless victims of the civil and ethnic wars of this modern age, usually forgotten once the immediate emergency is over and the media have moved on to crises new.

Click here for image - Around the World They are the most defenceless victims of the civil and ethnic wars of this modern age, usually forgotten once the immediate emergency is over and the media have moved on to crises new.

Now a leading human rights organisation has called for urgent international action to help the children in three dozen countries on five continents, who are refugees in their own land.

In a report yesterday, Save the Children estimates some 20 million children have been forced from their homes by war, of whom seven million have fled to other countries as refugees.

Click here for image - Sierra Leone The remaining 13 million, in the dry language of officialdom "internally displaced persons," have been forced to remain in their own countries, amid lawlessness and anarchy.

Often this "displacement" can last six years or more, a huge chunk of childhood. "Generations of children are growing up with no chance of a future," says the report, War Brought Us Here. "These children are tomorrow's excluded and marginalised adults."

Their plight reflects modern conflict, in most cases within countries rather than between countries - civil wars in which children are often deliberate targets, picked out to terrorise the civilian population. They may be traumatised, sexually abused or forced to become soldiers. They are especially at risk from mines.

Click here for image - Kosovo The report focuses on the savagery of the Sierra Leone war, as well as the wars in Kosovo, Angola, Colombia and Sri Lanka. In Kosovo, 11 months after the Serbs were driven from the province, 150,000 children have not returned home.

In Angola more than two million people, one-sixth of the population, have been driven from their homes by the 25-year-old civil war.

In Colombia, says Save the Children, two out of three displaced children have watched the murder or attempted murder of at least one of their family. In Sri Lanka 270,000 children have been displaced, some six times or more. In Sierra Leone, 1.8 million children are refugees. One of them is 16-year-old Adamasay, and the report details her dreadful, harrowing story of the fate that befell her after she was captured by rebels.

Click here for image - Burma "They brought me to the village. I was holding my baby boy. First they killed him with an axe.

"I cried out, 'Where is my baby, oh my baby'. So they struck me on the head with a machete. After that, they ordered me to put my hand on a stick which was on the ground. They chopped and nearly severed my right hand."

She was taken to the next village, then to the next town where the doctor completed the amputation.

Click here for image - Sri Lanka She returned to Freetown, the seaport capital, to live with her mother, but in January 1999, her house was burnt down by rebels. Now Adamasay is in a camp for amputees, with four other family members with nowhere else to go.

The failure to help children has many reasons. One is the sheer difficulty of applying international law to brutal internal conflicts where rebels and governments can be equally guilty, where information is scanty, and co-ordination lacking among the aid groups and national authorities that are trying to help.

Click here for image - Sudan But Save the Children also blames a lack of follow-up assistance and funding from the international community, especially in conflicts such as those in Angola and Sri Lanka, where attention flags and donor support drops off as fighting drags on for years without conclusion.

But those longer-term needs, of education and job opportunities, are the most important.

"The rights of children are sacred - they have no borders," Mike Aaronson, the group's director general, said last night.

Click here for image - Democratic Rep of Congo "Yet governments, armed opposition groups and the international community are persistently failing to meet their obligations to protect these children. It's time to move beyond the rhetoric and put these rights into practice."

As the organisation points out, international laws already exist to protect affected children: the question is, how to enforce them.

The biggest obligation rests with the governments and armed opposition groups, who must end all impunity for those who violate children's rights, halt the recruitment of child soldiers, and provide explicitly for refugee children in peace negotiations and postwar rebuilding plans.

But the combatants usually lack both the will and the money to act, making it imperative for the United Nations and individual countries including Britain do so themselves.

Click here for image - Colombia Save the Children urgesthe UN to establish the right of international access to displaced children, to make sure sufficient resources are available, and to designate a lead agency to co-ordinate a relief programme.

Britain, says the group, must use its political leverage to guarantee such access, and throw its weight behind the new International Criminal Court to track down and punish the savage abusers of children's rights.