The Most Vulnerable to Violence Find Help After the Fighting Ends
Art, drama, and group discussions help children victimized by war
JOHANNESBURG — ALBERT SEEMA'S favorite pastime is painting. His pictures - of babies being killed and adults fighting in South Africa - aren't pretty. But he says drawing makes him feel better.
``First I feel scared. Then sad,'' says the 13-year-old, speaking slowly, his eyes downcast. ``Then I feel okay.''
Albert, a former street child rescued from a life of beatings and abandonment, is still withdrawn. But he's opening up after two years of care, play acting, and art therapy at Open School, a pioneering Johannesburg institution trying to rebuild the lives of South Africa's black youth.
Such programs give hope to experts struggling with a growing global problem - how to heal children who are emotional victims of war and political violence.
From Bosnia to Somalia, Liberia to Afghanistan, 12 million children have been left homeless and more than 1 million were separated from their families in wars during the past decade, according to the United Nations. More than 1.5 million have been killed and up to 5 million maimed.
The millions who have survived often show emotional problems such as nightmares and fears of death, experts say. Tens of thousands have witnessed executions or taken up arms themselves.
Children under 15, some as young as 10, have fought in at least 24 armed conflicts or have been forced into military service - including in Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Mozambique.
Documented cases exist of child soldiers sacrificed on the front lines traversing minefields or being forced to kill their own relatives. (See Angola, Page 7.)
The situation has grown so severe that the UN Secretary General commissioned a special study on the impact of armed conflict on children to try to come to some global solution. The study - the most-exhaustive one ever on the subject - was launched by the former first lady of Mozambique, Graca Machel, at the start of this year.
Traveling across the world's worst conflict zones, Ms. Machel hopes to come up with recommendations for governments and organizations around the globe for more effective international measures to protect children from violence.
``It will establish an important precedent in the general area of human rights,'' said program manager Jennifer Klot.
``We will seek to demonstrate to the world community the necessity of effective measures to protect children's rights and stimulate greater international action - enforcing existing measures, promoting physical and psychological recovery, and social reconstruction programs, and stricter guidelines,'' Ms. Klot says.
A big priority is to ensure enforcement of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in November 1989. The convention commits countries to protect the young from the impact of conflicts. But its guidelines are more often than not ignored.
Klot said the Machel team hoped to build on the concept of ``children as zones of peace'' pioneered by UNICEF over the past decade to provide children essential emergency and relief assistance in various conflict zones, including El Salvador, the Philippines, and Uganda. Short truces were declared by warring sides to get the supplies and help to the children, and thousands of young lives were thus saved, she said.
Another inspiring endeavor is UNICEF's ``peace education'' activities to sensitize children against prejudice and stereotyping of other ethnic groups. For example, in Lebanon it has provided conflict-resolution training for 6,000 teenagers since 1989 and reached 140,000 young people at 125 peace camps, with promising results.
The researchers are also looking at initiatives afoot in South Africa, where the post-apartheid nation is trying to come to grips with the legacy of factional fighting in townships and police brutality, which killed more than 14,000 people over the past decade.
Children were not spared - official figures show that in the 1984-86 township uprisings, 300 children were killed by police, 1,000 wounded, 11,000 detained, and 173,000 held in police cells awaiting trial.
A recent study of 400 black children by psychologists at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg indicated that all showed signs of post-traumatic stress after witnessing assaults or being part of groups that committed murders.
The Open School, in an office building in the city center, aims to get the children to open up about their experiences.
The school also tries to create a safe haven for the children away from violence at home and on the street.
The children's artwork and play tell of violence in every aspect of life - burning shacks, armed police running after teenagers, vehicles being stoned, gangsters, funerals, hunger, broken homes, commuters thrown from trains. Many children are almost matter-of-fact as they describe seeing neighbors and relatives killed and fearing their own death.
``The things these children have seen are terrible,'' said Open School director Colin Smuts. ``Art gives you a starting point, especially for nonverbal children. By getting the kids to express themselves, they can start coming to terms with the violence, which has deeply affected them. We also try to show the kids in discussions that violence is not the solution.''
Church groups and the new African National Congress-led government believe educational efforts can wean the population off a culture of violence.
Methodist Bishop Peter Storey, for instance, launched a successful campaign at Christmas to replace gifts of toy weapons with books.
Dozens of school children in Soweto township handed in their toy guns, which were crushed, along with 5,000 toy firearms taken off the shelves by a retail chain.
Community leaders and social workers have launched initiatives encouraging black township youths used to a life of violence to return to school to learn new skills. Special counseling sessions are under way in the townships around Johannesburg targeting former teenage members of civilian militia Self-Defense Units.
One of the biggest problems facing those trying to help the war-traumatized young, however, is lack of resources. With some 130 of the 150 major conflicts since World War II occurring in developing countries, major obstacles to coping include lack of funds, training, and infrastructure.
Experts are also divided over the best method of helping children come to grips with what they've seen and experienced. Some say the Western approach of one-on-one counseling is an alien concept in some developing countries, where art and group discussions would serve better.
American Judith Thompson, who for 10 years was involved with a US-based international program called ``Youth Leaders in Social Change,'' says it is crucial for war-affected youths to talk with each other to realize they are not alone and to break through prejudices about erstwhile enemies.
Until the program ran out of funding in 1993, about 800 youths from some 20 conflict areas - including Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Philippines, Nicaragua, South Africa, Guatemala, Mozambique, Uganda, Poland, Germany, Vietnam, Laos, and Haiti - were brought to the United States to meet with other young people growing up in troubled areas, such as inner cities.
The program also brought together youths from former warring sides to work in reconciliation groups in Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Israel-Palestine.
For many of the participants, this was the first time they openly shared their experiences with others. Nearly 20 percent had been orphaned; 85 percent had witnessed firsthand executions or killings.
``They drew strength from the realization that they were not alone and that people previously seen as enemies were actually very similar,'' she said.
``I think we have a successful formula, which could be applied anywhere. Training youths to help each other helps them let off repressed baggage and develop self-esteem. Another aspect of healing is that survivors become advocates against war and abuse.''
She, like many experts, holds out hope for new generations. ``While children have fewer emotional defenses than adults, they can be more resilient if proper support is provided. They have more of their lives ahead of them.''