A village outside Kabul, Afghanistan. redit

Childhood in conflict: loss and resilience in Afghanistan and Iraq

Heading into the villages outside Kabul, snowy mountains rise into the distance ahead. Sand-coloured walls broken up by solid metal gates line both sides of the muddy road. Homes are concealed behind them for safety. Occasionally a child’s kite can be seen flying above a perimeter – a clue to the family life inside. In this part of Afghanistan, the legacy of forty years of conflict is similarly out of sight. There are no front lines here. No craters and no destroyed buildings.

For the first time in years fragile peace talks have brought some hope of an end to the fighting. Here in the icy outskirts of the capital it isn’t immediately apparent what is at stake. Until, that is, you step through those gates and talk to the children.

Stories from conflict

Sat in the cold front room of her home, 11 year old Sema* told me how her father was killed in a suicide attack in the city. He went to work one morning and never came back. “When we were told my father was not alive any more, we couldn’t believe it”, she said. “My youngest sister still thinks that my father is abroad, and that he’s coming back one day.”

Sema* thinks about her father every second and likes to look at his prayer beads (Tisbeh) to remember him.
Sema* likes to look at her late father’s prayer beads (Tisbeh) to remember him. Credit: Andrew Quilty/Save The Children

She remembers her father hugging her and bringing home sweets. Now her cousin brings them for Sema and her siblings but it’s not the same. “It doesn’t make sense” because it’s not her father.

And Sema is far from alone. I heard similar stories from many children. Of fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers stolen away in a moment by sudden attacks, on days that started like any other.

The horrifying truth

Last year in Afghanistan more civilians were killed than at any time since records have been kept. According to one estimate Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), including suicide attacks, accounted for more than three quarters of civilian deaths and injuries.

In 2017, nearly a third of all UN-verified child casualties worldwide happened here, and 2018 saw a further increase in the killing and maiming of children.

The bigger picture is shocking. One in five children on the planet now live in areas affected by conflict. That’s more than at any time in over twenty years. Afghanistan is one of the ten worst-hit countries. Another is Iraq, where the former-ISIS stronghold of Mosul has seen children come under brutal attack.

There, in contrast, devastation is all around. Whole neighbourhoods have been turned to twisted metal, rubble and dust. The burnt out shells of cars that were packed with explosives have come to rest three or four stories up. They are plainly visible through the gaping holes in countless buildings.

The only survivors

On one quiet corner of the city, there was once a large family home. When I arrived there was only debris. The bomb came at night, and killed twenty-seven members of one family. Seven year-old Yani* and six-year old Aran* were the only two survivors. They lost their parents and almost everyone they loved.

Yani*, 7, plays with a musical toy at his grandparents house in West Mosul. Credit: Sam Tarling/ Save the Children
Yani*, 7, plays with a musical toy at his grandparents house in West Mosul. Credit: Sam Tarling/ Save the Children

Aran was hit in the stomach by shrapnel, which went through to her back. She was rushed to the hospital where they operated, removing her spleen and a kidney.

The siblings now live with their remaining grandparents just 50 metres from the scene of the attack. Step out of their front door, look up the road and there it is. They take the long way round to get to school, to avoid passing it. This is the grim, everyday reality for children living with the aftermath of war.

Their grandparents are doing everything they can to provide a loving home, and Save the Children’s caseworkers are supporting the family. The day I visited they played happily with each other and their friends, while their grandfather looked on. Although he told me they are still frightened of airstrikes long after the barrage ended, and regularly become upset.

Many children in Mosul are still living in near constant fear for their lives, often reliving memories of devastation, displacement, bombing and extreme violence.

The horrific impact on children is partly the result of protracted modern conflicts, fought among civilian populations. But there is also a crisis in accountability – with persistent, widespread and sometimes deliberate violations of children’s rights across the globe.

Reasons for hope – in Afghanistan and elsewhere

Back in Afghanistan, Sema is showing incredible fight. If you have to look a little deeper to find the scars of war here, you’ll find reasons for hope in the same places.

When the sadness starts to envelop her, Sema likes to run. She wants to take on marathons in the future and be famous runner so people know her.

Save the Children has helped Sema into school and she wants to become a teacher. But going to school is about more than that. “To be a brave woman in the future you have to get education,” she told me.

In the face of attacks that no child should ever experience, children in Afghanistan, Iraq and far too many countries across the world are being forced to show almost unimaginable bravery to survive and recover.

The UK Government can make a huge difference by showing some of that bravery. Save the Children is calling for the UK to put children front and centre of its defence, foreign and aid policies, and to use its global influence to protect children in places like Afghanistan and other conflicts.

It is time to stop the war on children.

You can help:

Add your voice and sign our petition to stop the war on children

Read our new report on protecting children in 21st century conflict.

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