BU LAURA BRISARD
When there is conflict, the entire community is affected. The most vulnerable, however, are children. Two members of the Partners for Peace network tell their stories about what happened to them more than 40 years ago, when they were little children during the Biafran War. These events may have occurred a long time ago, but the stories still resonate today. Around the world, as many as a billion children live in conflict affected areas. Half the Nigerian population is under the age of 18, making it among the youngest countries in the world. In Nigeria and elsewhere, it is the most innocent who are the most at risk during times of violence.
As Rose and Austin recount in these video diaries, exposure to violence leaves permanent scars, whether they were directly victimized or whether they witnessed violence being perpetrated against others. Children living in conflict areas are exposed to many threats to their health and security. In measuring the direct effects of violence on children, it can be seen that it cuts across many CAST indicators.
- Refugees/IDPs: In some cases children can be forced to flee their homes, leaving behind community and social support, disrupting their education, and forcing them to live in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
- Public Services; Economic Pressures: Schools can be destroyed, teachers unavailable, or it can simply be too dangerous for children to go to class, adversely affecting their opportunities long after conflict has abated. In 2013, according to the European Commission, 28.5 million children were out of primary school as a direct consequence of conflict. The health of a population can also be affected by conflict in complex humanitarian emergencies with outbreaks of otherwise preventable diseases like cholera. In conflict affected communities, jobs are few and prices are high, rendering households economically stressed and food insecure.
- Security Apparatus; Human Rights: Children may run the risk of being recruited by combatants as fighters, labor, intelligence, or for sexual exploitation. Others get caught in the crossfire, suffering injury or losing loved ones.
- Group Grievance: In conflicts involving polarized identity groups, children can be killed in scorched earth offensives, or targeted because of who they’re related to.
Children are the future of any society. If as a result of conflict, children have no education, no social support, and suffer long-term psycho-social trauma, it can affect an entire generation and undermine the future of the wider society as a whole. We all have a stake in mitigating the effects of conflict on children, no matter who we are.
Austin Onuoha tells about an airstrike on his church when he was five years old. His uncle died while trying to help him get away. In reflecting on his experience, he says that when faced with violence, one can react in two different ways: wanting revenge, and deciding to become violent and to retaliate, or deciding not to take part in the violence, not to repeat it and making a vow not to engage in violence. Austin’s own traumatic experience during the Biafra War led him to choose the second option, prompting him to become a human rights activist, because of his conviction that “we must do what we can to make sure our children, our youth, don’t experience violence.” In 1968 or 1969, Austin was a young child hiding in the bush with his uncle and cousin, since his own father had gone off to take part in the war effort. When Christmas came, Austin recalls they all went to the local cathedral to attend mass, because a ceasefire had been agreed to during the Christian holiday, and it was the first time in a while that they came out of hiding.
However, about midway through the service, they heard the sounds of planes overhead. Bombs started to fall. Everyone rushed outside, including Austin and his family. Austin remembers that his first instinct as a 5 year old in that moment of disorientation was to turn to his uncle, the person responsible for him, to get him to safety. But his uncle was cut down, while he was holding hands with his own daughter on one side and Austin on the other. Whatever happened afterwards, Austin cannot remember it, “I had never seen such blood before in my life. As a 5 year old, I don’t know how I got home, what happened next.” What he does remember is not being able to understand why someone would bomb a church. Later on, he also resolved himself to work in the field of human rights, in order to do his best so that no one, especially any 5 years old, should ever experience the same level of violence he did. This work is important for him because, as he explains, “Violence is like an indelible ink that never leaves you.”
Dr. Rose Adiukwu had a very similar traumatic experience during the Biafra War, when she was a young girl. When the war had started, Rose’s dad had taught her how to take cover during bombings. In October 1968, a bomber attacked her village. Rose ran out of the house, carrying her little brother. She says she doesn’t even know how she was able to since she was a little kid, but she somehow managed to jump over the fence and lay down on the ground with her brother, taking cover. Rose recalls that the plane was so low she could see the face of the pilot. The bomb attack only lasted between 10 to 15 minutes, but it destroyed the village. People were shouting and crying. Four of her cousins had perished during the attack when a bomb fell on the kitchen where they had been eating. This event shaped her, and inspired her to become involved in the work of Partners for Peace because of her opposition to conflict and violence, after having seen how it had shattered the peace of both her family and her village.
These two stories relate events which took place during the Biafra War, which divided the country from 1967 to 1970, when the southeastern states of Nigeria broke away to become an independent country, the Republic of Biafra. Both Austin and Rose were young children when they had traumatic experiences of violence, and as such they are particularly poignant in relating how deeply they have been affected by conflict, which killed members of their families and left them with horrible memories. During his video diary, Austin says that such an experience is not something you wish to remember or to talk about. The fact that he volunteered to tell his story, and agreed for the video to be published, is revealing of how important sharing his story is for him, despite the trauma, in order to explain why he is striving so that no child has to experience war.
Both Austin and Rose, because of their experiences, have made it their life’s mission to protect children from war, and the effects of violent conflict. This means being able to attend school, having a shelter to live in, and being provided with proper sanitation and medical care. Having grown up during a dark period of Nigeria’s history, Rose and Austin today work in order to make sure no one, especially children, will ever be permanently marked with violence, and if they are, to encourage them to choose the path of working towards peace rather than continuing the circle of violence and destruction.
1. URL located at: http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/thematic/childre…