Peckham's children hold on to their knives in fear of attack

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The Independent Online

"The children I work with carry around knives because they expect to be attacked. This is their norm." Camila Batmanghelidjh spends every hour of her working life in the company of the young and disaffected of Peckham.

Nearly 18 months after Damilola Taylor's death, knife-carrying remains de rigueur for many of the neighbourhood's children.

Ms Batmanghelidjh said: "The children do not feel any safer than when Damilola died. As the general group carries knives, anyone who wants to have extra power carries a gun. It ups the ante."

As the co-ordinator of the charity Kids Company, she has put 500 Peckham children through therapy in less than three years. Some of the youngsters are products of local schools that call out police 400 times a year.

She said: "The danger with this situation is that high levels of violence acquire a normality and the children are desensitised to it. It becomes their way of life." Between November 2000 and February 2002, the most recent month for which figures are available, the number of crimes committed in the London borough of Southwark rose by 7 per cent to 3,711. Common assaults went up by 6 per cent and robberies rose by an alarming 47 per cent to a rate of nine a day.

The one bright spot appears to be a 14 per cent fall in possession of offensive weapons, though Camila Batmanghelidjh would argue that the 42 people arrested on such charges last February did not begin to reflect the extent of knife-carrying in the area.

Chief Superintendent Rod Jarman claims that the promises to bring down crime in the area of the estate, made at the time of Damilola's death, have not been abandoned.

"We are now below the level of street crime of a year ago. That is the first time we have had month-on-month reductions in crime," he said.

New projects include having police officers in schools, where the relationship is one of providing a service to junior citizens rather than searching them at the school gates.

Ms Batmanghelidjh acknowledged that these new relations between children and police provided some hope for the future.

She said: "The police have woken up and realised that the large majority of these children who are perpetrators of crime were initially victims and no one was there to help them when they needed help."