Christmas appeal: A chance for children who have known the worst

My connection with Hope and Homes for Children, like so much else in my life, was accidental. The charity's founder, Colonel Mark Cook, was the first Commander of British Forces in former Yugoslavia. In Croatia in 1992, he came upon a pile of rubble which was all that was left of the orphanage at Lipik. On his own initiative and in his own time, he decided to rebuild it. He came to see me about this project one day in Sarajevo. Quite by chance it was the same day that I had a frontline mishap. He was on hand with his field dressing to patch me up and he later managed to use the occasion to gain the necessary publicity for the Lipik Orphanage. That was the beginning of Hope and Homes for Children, the charity run by Mark, his wife, Caroline, and a dedicated team of volunteers. They are now active in nine countries, providing homes for the victims of war, and in many cases saving lives as well. The emphasis has shifted from building orphanages to closing them down, and looking after the orphans in other ways.

In Croatia and Sarajevo, where Mark raised funds to rebuild the orphanages during the worst of the fighting, the charity is now helping to reform the institutions from within. By creating mother and baby units, it supports desperate young mothers who might otherwise abandon their babies. For the older children who lost their education, and their childhood, during the war, the charity's volunteers help to find them training and jobs.

In Romania and Ukraine, the charity is helping to close down the orphanages where many children never leave their cots, are given no love or stimulation and gradually rock themselves into a netherworld bereft of human kindness. It has convinced local and national governments to support the often politically fraught process of closing the institutions and transferring children into foster homes and small family homes within their own communities. A child such as Vasile, who never spoke in the orphanage for the first few years of his life, now sings as he plays in the garden. No miracle, but reality. Individual care and love is giving new life to these children.

In Sierra Leone, Sudan and Eritrea the charity is supporting children who have endured the very worst of the wars. According to the circumstance of each child, the charity either helps to support the extended family or to provide a foster family. It also offers the foster families support and training for their very difficult task.

Healing the terrible scars of abandonment to an orphanage or those inflicted by seeing your family killed and home burnt requires a long-term commitment. It cannot be done with just food, medical care or even education, invaluable as these are. Hope and Homes for Children recognises that these children need a family for life and, above all else, they need that too often abused word, love.

Hope and Homes for Children has resisted the temptation to expand too rapidly. It remains small enough to be close to its projects, yet large enough to be effective. It has benefited countless children who without it would have been homeless and destitute. I would wish that in the new millennium the need for such a charity would diminish. Unfortunately we live in a world in which many countries are still devastated by war, and the most helpless victims are the very young and the very old. I wish the Independent on Sunday every success with its Christmas appeal. I know that the money raised will be put to good use.

Martin Bell MP is a former BBC foreign correspondent.

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