Eye witness: Where men teach sons to shoot dead bodies

Richard Lloyd Parry gets a first-hand taste of war, and fear, from a child
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The Independent Online

Sodaba and Abdullah Maqsoud are six and four years old, but last Monday evening, in the moment it took for a blast wave to reach their house on the outskirts of Kabul, both of them grew up all at once. It was the ninth day of bombing but, like a surprising number of Afghans, the Maqsoud family had felt very little of its direct effects. Over their home, at least, it had been distant and nocturnal, and the children had slept through it. But that night American planes began bombing Kabul's airport, which was close to the family home.

A few of the bombs missed their target and fell even closer. There was a great noise; all the windows in the house shattered. Several of their neighbours were badly injured, although none of the Maqsouds received a scratch. But since that evening little Sodaba and Abdullah have not been the same.

"Whenever they hear a car passing outside, let alone a bomb, they cry and hide under blankets or under the table," says their father, Abdul Maqsoud. "Even when the doorbell rings, they think it's the sound of a missile. I tell them not to be afraid, but it's no good, because I am afraid myself." So the day after all their windows were broken, Mr Maqsoud and his family loaded up a few clothes and made the long, exhausting journey over the mountains and into exile in Pakistan.

It is a truism that children are the first and greatest victims of war, but nowhere is it more painfully obvious than in Afghanistan. The suffering and deprivation are multiple, and have continued without pause since 1979. It is not only today's children who are suffering, but everyone who has been a child over the past two decades, during the Soviet invasion, the 10-year war between the Russians and the mujahedin, the civil war and now the US-British bombardment.

"People ask what our worst-case scenario would be in this crisis," says Eric Laroche, the head of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) for Afghanistan. "If you have turned on the television these past few days, and have seen the injured bodies of young children, I ask you, what scenario could be worse?"

The suffering begins at birth. Every 30 minutes in Afghanistan a woman dies in labour. Compared to Western Europe or America, an Afghan child is 25 times more likely to die before the age of five. According to Dr Laroche, 100,000 more children are at risk of dying this winter unless necessary aid can be trucked in before winter sets in – 100,000 more than the 300,000 who already die every year from preventable causes.

"That means measles, exposure, severe malnutrition," says Dr Laroche. "Or a case of diarrhoea that could be cured with a 10 cent sachet of oral rehydration salts." Last week, after weeks in which few convoys got through, the UN agencies finally began to reach their targets for aid into Afghanistan. But even if the physical catastrophe is averted, the invisible effects of the bombing – the fear that possesses children like Sodaba and Abdullah – will take a generation to overcome.

Afghanistan has been at war for 22 years, and there is scarcely an Afghan adult under the age of 40 who does not have childhood memories of being mortally afraid. "The biggest thing is that my education is incomplete," says Mohammed, a 27-year-old Afghan radio technician who lives in Pakistan. "But apart from that I don't feel like a normal person. I'm an adult, but I'm always affected by the war. I'm affected by the war even now."

Four years ago Unicef commissioned a report on the psychological effects of the war on children in Kabul. It is an unemotional document, written in the dry language of a psychological survey, but its findings are almost unbearably painful. Three-quarters of the children interviewed had lost a member of their family in the fighting in the previous four years; one-third had seen a family member die. Two-thirds had watched someone being killed by rockets; half had seen death by bombs, gunfire and landmines.

Two-thirds had seen dead bodies or body parts; the same proportion had heard people screaming for help, and seen their own house being shelled or rocketed. The long-term effects of such exposure, under the term post-traumatic stress disorder, are hard to predict, even in a country with sophisticated psychiatric care. In present-day Afghanistan, they are unfathomable.

"We are depressed, wherever we are," says Omar Farhad (not his real name), who works for the relocated Unicef office in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. "When I was 16, a neighbour of ours was killed by a piece of rocket, but there was a sniper at the end of the street and we couldn't take the body outside. So we put the body in a trunk and carried him down into the basement. He was there for nine days. Isn't it obvious there's going to be a difference between someone who's seen what we've seen and someone who hasn't?"

There are still more heartbreaking and chilling statistics in the Unicef survey. Nine out of 10 of the children questioned had believed that they would be killed during the fighting. Almost the same proportion sometimes or often thought life was not worth living. It is the sense of hopelessness that is most corrosive because, unlike physical injuries, it is passed down to the next generation.

"I was in Mazar-e-Sharif," says Mohammed, "and I saw a guy there with his son – he was about 23 and the boy was six. The father had a Kalashnikov and his boy was carrying a small gun, a real gun. He was saying to his son, 'Let's kill a Taliban,' but there were no Taliban around, just a lot of dead bodies. So the father went up and fired his Kalashnikov into the dead bodies. Then he carefully showed the boy how to do the same thing.

"That's the effect this war has on children. The father grew up with a grudge and passed it on to his son. He thought he was a good father. He loved his son, and he wanted to show him how to shoot dead bodies. That was the gift he made to him."