Echoes of silent cries: A deep dive into the global war on children

Modern armed conflicts exhibit a distinct trend. In addition to the large number of civilian casualties, the picture of gross negligence in security is becoming more and more visible.

Modern armed conflicts exhibit a distinct trend. In addition to the large number of civilian casualties, the picture of gross negligence in security is becoming more and more visible. From the war in Ukraine or Gaza to the violence in Sudan or Myanmar, this trend prevails. Another problem is increasing with these trends. Laws of war are in many cases collapsing or disappearing due to the thumbs up to the law of war. In such a context, many people think that civilians are targeted deliberately during war or conflict. Whether this allegation is true or not, the matter is beyond shocking and inexcusable.

We have seen that the parties in war are becoming inhumane to children. However, the United Nations has always been vocal about stopping cruelty to children. The organisation calls child abuse ‘grave violations’. In the latest report on conflict among children, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned, “Children are disproportionately affected by war-related violence and abuse.”

Taking into consideration the UN Secretary General’s words, it can be seen that children are in the worst situation due to the violence that is going on in different parts of the world. Many cases of war-torn children are happening, like killing and maiming, rape, sexual violence, abduction, school attacks, and the recruitment of child soldiers. Such a trend naturally hurts everyone.

In 2022, the inhumane treatment of children in Myanmar escalated by more than 140 percent due to the civil war. Similarly, ongoing inter-communal violence is destroying the lives of children in South Sudan. The list of countries registered by the United Nations includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel-Palestine, Somalia, Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

When the United Nation drew up the above list, the Gaza war had not yet begun. In other words, given the rate at which Gaza violence is killing children, Palestine should be at the top of the list. Undoubtedly, the current Gaza war’s rate of child deaths will surpass all previous records for violence against children. The whole world knows about the children’s situation in Gaza.

Palestinian local officials said that 18,000 Palestinians under the age of 18 have been killed in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Many were injured. 20,000 were separated from their families or unaccompanied. It is impossible not to understand how terrible these numbers are.

An eight-year-old child waits her turn to receive food in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. © UNICEF/Abed Zagout

Children suffer the most in every war. All the war stories and images are gruesome, scarred, and burned. In these wars, indiscriminate brutality targets young children without any justification. The story of the horrors of the killing of children in Palestine is shocking. Israeli attacks kill and injure hundreds of children in Gaza every day, and the number is rising by the hour, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said. According to a UNICEF survey, 12,000 children lost their lives in the 11-year civil war in Syria from 2011 to 2022, with an average of three children killed every day.

In war-torn Afghanistan, an average of two children were killed every day in the 12 years from 2009 to 2020. In addition, 8 thousand 99 children lost their lives. 3 thousand 700 children were killed in Yemen’s civil war from 2015 to 2022, which is an average of 1.5 children per day. Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine has killed 510 children in the last 21 months, an average of 7.7 children per day. From 2008 to 2022, 3 thousand 100 children were killed in the Iraq war in 14 years, which is an average of 6.6 children per day.

The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF has expressed concern that war always has a serious impact on children’s mental health. The situation of children in Gaza is even more dire. In this situation, more than 1 million children in Gaza are in urgent need of emotional support.

The children of war-torn Gaza are going through many hardships. Common symptoms include high levels of panic and anxiety, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, etc. Above all, whenever the sound of bombings reaches their ears, they fall into extreme mental instability and panic.

When war or conflict occurs in a country or region, malnutrition and disease, especially in children, occur. Disease becomes the worst enemy for young children. Even in such circumstances, inhumane treatment of children constitutes a violation of international law. In particular, it is an instance of making a mockery of the Geneva Conventions.

According to UNICEF, children are the first victims of all wars. They experience the most pain and hurt. However, war also has rules. In the words of UNICEF, “No child should be cut off from essential services during war.” No child should be held hostage. We must protect hospitals and schools from bomb attacks. If we cannot ensure the safety of children, the next generation will have to shoulder the responsibility.

Unfortunately, the warring parties do not listen to these words from UNICEF. It is not concerned at all with international law or the Geneva Convention. Otherwise, how come the condition of children in Gaza is so dire? We note that while there is much talk about stopping the Gaza war, the failure is more apparent in the question of a ceasefire. Meanwhile, child mortality continues to rise in Gaza. It is estimated that a child still dies every 15 minutes in Gaza. More alarming news is that at least two mothers are dying every hour. How terrible is that? Do you even think?

An Israeli writer named Gideon Levy railed against Tel Aviv for standing up for the children of Gaza. Criticising the Israeli army, Levy said, “This is undoubtedly a violent rampage.” It will also affect Israeli society. Israel will have to pay the price in the end.” Levy also said, ‘Israel is erasing future generations in Gaza. Soldiers are brutally killing children. People who killed children like this, will individuals forget? How long will the sane people of the world remain silent?’

This is about the children of Gaza. The children of this region are also in extreme danger due to the ongoing war in Ukraine since 2022. Most notably, Russia is accused of illegally abducting thousands of children from Ukraine. Kiev has been saying, “About 2 lakh child abduction complaints have been received, of which 1,200 cases have been registered.” Despite the discussion and criticism in various Western media outlets about such allegations in Kiev, no measures have been taken to rescue the missing children.

A couple of months ago, Latvian President Edgars Ringkevics attended a conference called ‘Russia’s War on Children’. In a speech at the conference held in the capital Riga, he said, “Russia is deliberately erasing the identity of Ukrainian children and causing incredible emotional and psychological damage.” Putin has effectively turned child trafficking into a weapon of war, essentially trying to destroy Ukraine’s future.’

Children in Ethiopia are also facing various crises. More than 3 million children suffer from malnutrition. In a country of 126 million people, 45 percent of people are under 15 years of age. Due to the lack of relief, the condition of the people here has reached such a deplorable level that this crisis is being compared to the difficult situation faced in 1984. One million Ethiopians died in the famine that occurred between drought and war. The United Nations has already expressed concern that “more than 2 million Ethiopians are in dire need of food aid.” It goes without saying that the “Tigre crisis” is solely responsible for this condition of Ethiopian children.

Armed groups, terrorists, and various criminal gangs are forcibly using children for their own interests. The trend of ‘forced child military recruitment’ is on the rise worldwide. According to the United Nations, between 2005 and 2022, more than 150,000 children (boys and girls) were involved in violent conflicts.

It is important to remember that child soldiers are not only created to fight; they are also used for guard work, surveillance, and carrying couriers. Most alarmingly, children are sexually exploited. Recently, the president of Ecuador, Daniel Noboa, highlighted a statistic showing how children are being used to commit crimes such as murder, drug trafficking, and robbery.

Legal safeguards for children during warfare

Yes! Children are legally protected in war. In 1949, internationally recognised rules of armed conflict were passed under the Geneva Conventions. It states that children must be protected and treated humanely during times of war. Israel ratified the Convention’s provisions in 1951, just two years after one and a half million Jewish children were killed in Europe during the Holocaust. But Israel does not recognise the 4th Geneva Convention. The 4th Convention deals with the protection of civilians fighting against occupation. Israel does not consider Palestine an occupied land. Israel views the disproportionate use of military force in Gaza as a legitimate means of destroying Hamas. Therefore, Israel claims that the death of civilians, including children, is not a war crime.

What’s the effect of armed conflict on children?

A 30-year-old mother told Al Jazeera her two children, aged 8 and 2, have been vomiting since the airstrikes. The vomiting is a reaction to intense fear. These two children are like the 95 percent of Palestinian children in Gaza who live with the psychological effects of war every day. Palestinian psychologist Dr. Iman Farazallah found that child survivors of war pay high psychological, emotional, and behavioural costs. Many children exhibit restlessness or violent behaviour.

Gaza City resident Samah Jabar (35), a mother of four, worries about her eldest son, Qusay (13). He told Al Jazeera: “He gets very excited and hits others a lot these days. He jumps at any word. He can’t stand it when someone talks loudly. He can’t stand it, even when someone makes a funny joke. I always tell him, “The war will end.” Many children, even teenagers, are afraid to go into a room other than their mother.

How are children’s schools affected?

The constant bombardment in Gaza has halted education. The constant bombardment has transformed schools into temporary shelters. Survival is the only goal now. The United Nations is currently sheltering nearly 400,000 displaced Gazans in schools and other buildings. UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, operates 278 schools in Gaza. At least four schools were damaged by the Israeli bombing, they said, and at least six people were killed. The Education Above All (EAA) Foundation, which provides scholarships for Palestinians at Gaza’s al-Fakhura school, was destroyed in a bomb attack. “Collective punishments, reprisals, and attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are serious violations of international human rights law and, if committed intentionally, constitute war crimes,” the EAA said in a statement.

What are the long-term consequences?

British Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu-Sitta, who works with Medical Aid for Palestinians in Gaza, said those who survive the war will have to learn to live without the rest of their families. He referred to this war as a “war on children.” “We will not only lose those killed in this war, but we will also bear the devastating psychological impact on civilians and children,” Mohammad Abu Rukbeh said in a statement.

“A child is simply a child.” Children must always be protected and never allowed to be attacked.” We are failing to protect children. It’s shameful and tragic. End violence against children in war.

Tareq Hasan
Tareq Hasan
Md Tareq Hasan, an independent political analyst, writes about politics, public policy, political and human-centered figures, diplomacy, and current national and international affairs. He is currently working as an 'Assistant Editor' of Perspective magazine, a magazine based in Bangladesh.