Christmas Appeal: Children desperate to sing and play after their homes descended into barbarism and savagery

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The Independent Online
I REMEMBER once meeting a group of refugee children, three young girls from Rwanda and Nigeria. One had seen her parents killed in front of her. The parents of another disappeared in the Rwandan massacres. The third hoped that her mother was still alive, but she couldn't contact her as she was in hiding.

The girls were lucky in one way; they had got here, to Britain, where there was a chance they might be able to make new lives for themselves.

I will never forget listening to those girls talk. Sometimes their voices became soft and uncertain, as they walked mentally through experiences that no one should ever have to deal with. At other times they sounded amazingly resilient and upbeat. If any of them said something funny all three would collapse into giggles.

They were volatile, beautiful, entrancing girls, and all of them seemed to be grasping life with both hands. "When I found myself back in school again, I thought, this is fantastic," one said with relish. Another had decided she wanted to be a doctor, like her dead father. They were desperate for the return of normality, for the chance to build a life like the lives other children had; secure, quiet, ordered, full of small obstacles and gentle pleasures. But often they despaired of getting there.

I remember sitting alone with one of them when she became pensive again. "Life is so cruel when you run for your life," she said in her childish, singsong voice. "You leave your family. You leave everything. I am homesick all the time." I watched the tears gather in her eyes and put out my arms to her, but she didn't want my comfort. She was in a place where I couldn't join her.

There was a time, not so long ago, when people spoke hopefully about how we must be nearing the end of history, as the world was progressing inexorably towards democratic stability. To which the only possible response, at the end of this millennium, is total scepticism. What kind of progress has occurred for all the children who have been caught up in just the last decade's tally of brutal wars and massacres? In Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Rwanda, in East Timor, millions of children have been forced to watch in silence as the world around them descended into barbarism.

One of the most famous victims of genocide in this century was a child, Anne Frank. Less than a month before she was sent to Belsen, she wrote in her diary: "We're much too young to deal with these problems, but they keep thrusting themselves on us... It's difficult in times like these; ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."

At the end of a century that has seen so many children killed in massacres and wars, it looks as though the beliefs of her killers were more powerful than her own.

In this century, children became targets of aggression in ways that had never been seen before. Once war tended to mean the soldiers of two different countries battling each other on a blood-soaked field. But in 20th-century warfare, civilians have become the prime targets. Now, war tends to mean guerrilla warfare within the boundaries of one country, or massacres carried out against entire populations of regions or specific ethnic groups. Worldwide, 90 per cent of war casualties are now civilians.

In these modern wars, there is no escape for the children. War kills their parents; war brings assaults upon themselves and their brothers and sisters; war means going without education, food and homes; war means long journeys through their own countries and into others in order to survive; war means living in hiding or in refugee camps.

In modern conflicts children are even forced to become soldiers. With lightweight automatic weapons a child can be an effective soldier, and as wars are less about military supremacy on the battlefield and more about the control and terrorisation of populations, children can be forced into soldiering when they should be at school.

Some armies prefer child soldiers because, taken early enough, they can be thoroughly brutalised and forced into inhuman behaviour they have no way of resisting. In a book published recently by Amnesty International - In the Firing Line: War and Children's Rights - there is an unforgettable photograph by Stuart Freedman, a photograph that cuts to the heart. It is a picture of a young boy who was kidnapped and turned into a soldier by the Lords Resistance Army, an opposition faction in Uganda. In the picture he is being reunited with his mother. She is laughing and crying and embracing him, while he is looking down to the ground, his face a mask, unable to respond to her. It is a picture of the end of childhood.

Children who are affected by war often do not wear individual faces for us. They appear on our television screens or newspaper pages in nameless, undifferentiated groups, and it can be hard for us to remember that every child killed was a person with a future that has now been destroyed, and that every child saved has a potential as big as our own to remember fear and hope for something better.

But the children who are hurt by warfare need concrete help much more than they need nebulous sympathy. If they seek refuge in our country, alone or with their families, we should not force them to live in lonely poverty or in fear of deportation back to the scene of their trauma. If they can't leave their own countries, they still need safe places to live - real homes, not temporary camps. They need good food, they need places to play and places to learn.

A number of organisations try to bring aid to such children. The charity The Independent is supporting this Christmas, War Child, sets up projects that attempt to bring some normality back into the lives of some of the most fragile and traumatised children in the world. One project in Rwanda helps street children at a centre in Ginkongoro. There, children who have lost their parents in the massacres and have never had a chance to learn to read or write, or learn a trade, are receiving basic education and food.

The charity has lost contact with another of its centres. The Little Star Centre in Grozny helped with the psychological rehabilitation of 3,000 Chechen children before contact was lost as renewed fighting broke out in November. No doubt when the bombs stop falling they will return, and try again to build a place where children can play and sing rather than cry and hide.


The toll of war

Approximately two million children have been killed in armed conflicts around the world over the last ten years.

Over four million children have been maimed or permanently disabled.

At least 10 million children have witnessed acts of war or of brutality.

The changing face of conflict

At least 300,000 child soldiers under the age of 18 are currently

engaged in armed conflicts.

At the beginning of the 20th century century, some 90 per cent of war casualties were military. At the century's end, around three-quarters of war dead are civilians, half of them children.

Land-mines maim or kill 800 children every month.

Fleeing from conflict

Over half the world's 15 million refugees are children.

At least one million children have been separated from their families through war in the last decade.

Last year, some 3,000 unaccompanied children sought asylum in the UK, the majority from war-torn countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, or the Former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo.