“Terror casts a shadow over childhood once more”

6 June 2024

“Terror casts a shadow over childhood once more”
Edna Fernandes, Director/Co-Founder of Beyond Conflict

After the end of WW2, the world promised the next generation a better future. For more than 460 million children living in or fleeing from warzones today, that promise has been broken. Terror casts a shadow over childhood once more. The result is 1 in 5 kids in warzones are living with severe trauma and mental health problems.

Today as we hold our event, the world’s eyes are on the 80th anniversary of the D Day landings and it’s an occasion that resonates with our own discussion here. PTSD in soldiers is understood and recognised now but it took generations of suffering to get there.

Together, we’re looking to raise greater awareness about the mental health impact of war upon its most innocent victims – children. Yet despite the work of many others over years, it’s an issue that remains widely ignored and dangerously under-resourced.

My Beyond Conflict Co-Founder, Professor Martin Parsons, spent much of his career trying to raise awareness on this very subject and at the close of his career, he expressed his despair to myself and Ed Newell, our chairman, at the failure of so many to listen. He asked: “Does anyone care?” I understood how he felt as it is hard raising money for this work. Martin examined this subject in the context of the child evacuees during the Second World War.  But his words apply to all children of war and I’d like to quote a few words from him, if I may:

“This is not a subject that can simply be ignored. At a basic level we now know war related trauma in children transcends three generations so this is not something that is transient and will simply go away…it will have long-lasting consequences, something that the world should be aware of.”

I cannot blame Martin for sometimes feeling despair. I feel like that too at times. Who is listening? But we have to remind ourselves that this is the work of many over many decades, as it was with war trauma in soldiers, and for this reason Beyond Conflict and our partner the Ukrainian Welcome Centre are seeking to build a coalition of voices to raise awareness and funding to help children whose mental health has been impacted by war. Because advocacy without action is fruitless.

Today we’re seeing wars routinely target children. From Gaza to Ukraine. It has robbed a generation of kids of their childhood and future. An attack on a child anywhere is an attack on the world’s future. It also makes a durable peace harder to build.

Back in 2016, an Iraqi psychiatrist told me about a 10 year old boy who escaped ISIS to an IDP camp. The boy was physically safe yet for three months he didn’t speak as he was deeply traumatised. One day he barricaded himself into a room with two small children. When aid workers broke down the door they found he’d killed the little ones, repeating what he’d seen ISIS do. This is one of two stories that inspired the formation of Beyond Conflict in January 2018. It tells us one thing for sure: horror breeds horror.

A generation of kids has grown up only ever knowing war – leading to mental health issues and trauma. What will happen if they don’t get the help they need?

Imagine being a kid facing the daily fear of bombs. They grieve for loved ones. Witness unspeakable horrors; alone, at risk of abuse or trafficking. And even when the bombs stop and the guns are silent, these kids continue to live with war raging inside their minds.

This means mental health problems such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  The UN reported that kids as young as five are self harming or living with suicidal thoughts in places like Gaza.

The damage will last their whole lives and affect their children, unless they get help.

The Child of War Exhibition, which ends this weekend, features the work of hundreds of schoolchildren through the War Through Children’s Eyes competition. It is a testament to the suffering minds of children of war everywhere. It is also a springboard to raise awareness about the mental health impact of all children in all wars. As well as money to do much needed work.

In the six years since Beyond Conflict was formed in January 2018, we’ve supported projects for Ukrainian refugees; Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh; Iraqi orphans; Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and youngsters in southern Israel. All have been innocent victims or frontline workers. But our efforts are a drop in the ocean. For real change to happen it requires a global coalition of voices to speak out about the scale of the problem and change international aid’s priorities.

The children in Narmina’s competition used art to voice the anguish of their broken-hearted generation.  In Oxford, St Clare’s School pupils have recorded online video messages for Beyond Conflict to tell the world what peace means to them. Mostly peace means freedom from fear. Freedom to be a kid. We hope this discussion today, with our eminent experts, will continue the children’s conversation and galvanise all of us to take further action.

Thank you.

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