ONE reason the process of peace and reconciliation is so difficult in places like the Middle East and South Africa is the presence of thousands of children - very young through their teens - who've known little else but violence.
War-ravaged nations in Africa, from Liberia on the west coast to Somalia on the east, have the same burden. They have not only a dearth of economic resources, but also a whole young generation whose outlooks on life have been shaped by a vicious struggle to survive amid war and atrocity.
The same is true in the former Yugoslavia and in parts of the former Soviet Union. When it comes to the problem of children brutalized - physically and mentally - by war, ``there are no geographical limitations,'' says Hiram Ruiz, a staffer with the US Committee for Refugees, a Washington-based advocacy group, who has traveled extensively in Asia and Latin America.
Children who grow up in turbulent settings, like a refugee camp, often lose contact with community structures that have given their families order and purpose for centuries. Skills and traditions - from farming methods to respect for elders - are often forgotten, Mr. Ruiz says.
``Worldwide, we're talking millions,'' says Neil Boothby, outlining the scope of the problem presented by kids uprooted by war, in refugee camps, or, in the worst cases, abducted into the ranks of the fighters.
Mr. Boothby, a professor of policy studies at Duke University, helped the humanitarian group Save the Children design a program in Mozambique to rehabilitate children torn from family and community by that country's decade-long civil war. That effort, which has involved recruiting and training of Mozambicans willing to care for the displaced youth, is frequently held up as an example of what can be done.
Many children being helped in Mozambique witnessed incredible horrors - such as parents and friends murdered - and were then forced into guerrilla ranks and taught to become killers themselves. The work of reclaiming these children - aged 6 through 16 - has taught some important lessons, Boothby says.
First, it has shown that ``these kids can be helped, but it's a difficult task... . Ultimately, the kids have to focus on what they've done and learn to forgive themselves - to recognize that they were abducted,'' he says. Society has to reach that same point, Boothby adds, since the youngsters are sometimes spurned as murderers.
A second key ingredient is the formulation of a national policy that emphasizes the need to rebuild community and incorporate the lost youth into it. Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano has been helpful in that, Boothby says. What's needed, in essence, is ``an institutionalization of forgiveness.''
Mozambique, a small, very poor country, has up to a half million children whose families were shattered by the war. Angola is another African nation with hundreds of thousands of children caught up in war. Sudan has similar problems. ``Various Sudanese rebel armies are aggressive in recruiting children into their ranks, at age 10 or earlier,'' notes Jeff Drumtra, African policy analyst with the US Committee for Refugees.
The amount of mental illness resulting from the experience of these children is ``devastating,'' says Andrew Natsios, vice president of World Vision, an interdenominational relief agency. ``And they'll go on to fight future wars.'' The only answer, Mr. Natsios says, is ``spiritual healing.''
That approach includes efforts to minister to young people who may have forgotten what it means to care about someone or have someone care about them. ``There is a general recognition that the best way to care for these children is through substitute or foster families and try to avoid warehousing in orphanages,'' Mr. Drumtra says.
Sometimes, though, foster families who were able to support an extra child in a refugee camp, because they were given extra rations, find the task much harder when they return home. One bolster to such efforts in Africa, Drumtra says, is the strong tradition of the extended family. Even in places scarred by conflict, ``it is generally recognized that there should be no such thing as orphans - the village takes care of its own,'' he says.
Boothby finds hope in the numbers of programs now under way to help children whose lives have been fractured by war. He cites the effort by Christian groups in Liberia, using what he calls ``a reconciliation paradigm.'' In Cambodia, UNICEF has helped mobilize women's associations dedicated to helping that country's youth. The Guatemalan arm of Save the Children has a program in progress. And the Soros Humanitarian Fund has launched what Boothby calls ``a massive effort'' to aid children forced to flee the Balkan conflict.
The task of restoring the values of home and community to children swept up by violence isn't just an overseas project, adds Gary Shaye, vice president for programs at Save the Children's headquarters in Westport, Conn. His agency has plans to extend its efforts into inner-city America as well.