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The ‘layer of protection’: children growing up in urban warfare

Marwa, an activist who advocates for vulnerable communities, described the terror of growing up during the war in Yemen at an event on protecting children in urban war organized by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

He describes having to live under air raids, never having to go to school without worry or play outside without the watchful eye of his concerned mother.

“When the war started, I was 11 years old. Honestly, I don’t remember anything but fear and tears,” she said of the conflict that began nearly eight years ago.

“Nothing can save you from an air strike. The missile can kill you and all your family members while you are sleeping at home and there is nothing you can do to avoid death under the rubble of your own home,” he said.

Child-specific harms of urban warfare

In a report released late last month, the ICRC sought to address what it called a gap in knowledge about child-specific harm caused by growing urban conflicts – from Gaza to Syria and Ukraine – which it said could help better respond to children’s needs. . This is a complex environment.

The aid group said the report is the first comprehensive study devoted specifically to the experiences of children in urban warfare, drawing on existing literature in addition to dozens of interviews with experts and witnesses. It called the report necessary because an estimated one in six children worldwide will have to navigate war as part of their lives.

This suggests that children in war situations need to be assessed differently as they are not able to assess risk accurately from adults, are more vulnerable due to their physiology, and will experience a reactive impact on their health if essential services such as water are disrupted. going through profound mental health changes that affect the rest of their lives.

Their experiences of urban warfare also vary based on criteria such as gender, age, disability, and immigration status, while children may have their education disrupted in a variety of ways, be separated from their families within minutes, face displacement, or be subjected to detention or Even recruitment into armed groups.

The ICRC report also details how the economic downturn caused by urban warfare can force children and their families to adopt harmful survival strategies, such as child labour, child marriage, or avoiding checkpoints or picking their way through rubble. rely on

‘most vulnerable’

Another urban war has erupted in Sudan since mid-April, with two generals fighting for control of the country and several cease-fires failing to stop the fighting.

The deadly power struggle has triggered a significant humanitarian crisis with more than 1.2 million people internally displaced and another 400,000 fleeing to neighboring states.

Children are walking along the road
Children walk along a street in Khartoum on June 4, 2023 [AFP]

One of those states is Chad, Sudan’s neighbor to the west, which has seen thousands of refugees – many of them children – pour over its borders on foot. Some have been held in UN-run camps, but many continue to live in dire conditions, uncertain of their future.

Al Jazeera’s Zein Basrawi, an eyewitness to the situation in Adre, Chad, described how she saw a mother fleeing the war, carrying a son who looked no older than one but suffered from developmental problems and severe body deformities.

“There’s no way he’s in the right place to get the kind of help that he needs, the kind of help that is the most vulnerable in need. Chad has no way of getting the kind of help they need in a place like an impromptu camp,” he said.

“So, there are layers and layers of vulnerability. Things are only getting worse. These kids are going to keep falling through the cracks and nobody knows when it’s going to come down.”

According to Basrawi, Sudanese children and their families are experiencing a “generational upheaval” that is occurring with increasing frequency and intensity over the past few decades and is being repeatedly traumatized.

“We saw a child in the camp yesterday who lost a leg below the knee in the fighting last year, and now he is completely displaced from Darfur to Chad,” he said.

He saw children who saw their fathers beaten, their mothers sexually assaulted, and felt certain they would die at the checkpoint. That means lack of clothing, food and water and no exposure to disease.

“When the children arrived, they were completely shocked, crying constantly,” Basravi said.

‘Perpetual state of fear’

Apart from the constant exposure of children to physical harm, urban conflict can seriously affect their mental health.

According to the ICRC report, children in these settings regularly report insomnia, stress, anxiety, panic attacks, grief, bedwetting, fear of loud noises and nightmares.

It cited a 2013 survey about the Syrian civil war that found 84 percent of adults and nearly all children rated bombings and shelling as the main cause of stress in children’s lives.

A 2022 study in Gaza found that children live in a “perpetual state of fear, anxiety, sadness and grief” and that more than half of children in Gaza have thought about suicide while three in five reported practicing self-harm.

To improve the situation, the ICRC sets out recommendations for states, combatant groups and humanitarian actors and for collecting and analyzing data on children in urban conflict settings.

It calls on states to establish strong domestic legal frameworks and enforce higher standards as a matter of policy and to develop recommendations for child detention and health and education services.

It said armed actors should specifically address the protection of children in their urban warfare doctrine and called on humanitarian actors to develop a fuller understanding of the risks and strengthen their capacity to prevent and reduce harm to children.

Winter in Ukraine
Refugee children fleeing Ukraine are given blankets by Slovak rescue workers at the Velke Slemence border crossing in Slovakia on March 09, 2022. [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

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