Marian Cambodia

Children and Conflict

Pax Christ Scotland’s chair, Marian Pallister, reflects on the violations children around the world are experiencing in conflict.

UN’s recently issued Children and Armed Conflict report says that rape and recruitment of children are on the rise and 26,425 have been victims of such atrocities. The report doesn’t, however, name perpetrators of violations against children, giving what Save the Children call a ‘free pass’ to guilty countries.

The UK mainstream media largely ignored the report, but this article in Al Jazeera  gave it the prominence it deserved. The countries where the worst atrocities against children happen today are Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

I first came face to face with such violence in refugee camps in Thailand along the border with what for a short time was called Kampuchea. It was early in 1980 and thousands of refugees were fleeing the slaughter inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. I was sent as a journalist to interview International Red Cross personnel, and getting through the red tape with which the Thai military had tied up the situation wasn’t easy. The Thai government didn’t want these refugees on their territory.

The children were separated from the adults. At the gate of each camp was a board covered in pictures of children seeking to be reunited with family members. Today this is computerised; then it was a crude and ineffective system and the children sought attention from nurses, doctors, aid workers and even passing journalists.

The attention they got from those ‘guarding’ them was a violation in every sense.

A Red Cross nurse told me that every night, aid workers heard children’s screams as Thai soldiers raped them. She begged me not to report on this, explaining it would result in an international incident that would close the camps, with the refugees being sent back into the hell that was their country at war.

Which hell was worse – the nightly rape of children or the conflict in which a man could be executed because he wore glasses and was therefore ‘an intellectual’. A hell where mass graves were proliferating daily?

Making the decision – to report or not to report – gave me sleepless nights. My decision to go with the nurse’s heartfelt plea has haunted me for decades, but I didn’t have the evidence needed to publish her accusation. Today, seeing the UN’s figures, I am 98 per cent sure that the situation was as she described.

More experienced in the weapons of war, I had no hesitation in reporting on the rape camps in Bosnia, where I interviewed teenage victims whose voices held the pain of all the sisters with whom they had suffered.

The UNHCR estimated that 12,000 Muslim women and children were raped as a weapon of war in the Bosnian conflict. Other estimates are much higher. The unwanted babies gathered up by an Egyptian charity in the aftermath of those rapes must, I am sure, have grown up to know the injustices that brought them into the world – however lavish the premises the charity showed me that would offer their care in the first weeks of their lives.

The lives of children violated in so many ways in conflicts will be shaped by those atrocities – and so will the world.

Pax Christi Scotland can only pray that by raising our voices in support of those children – our little brothers and sisters – we can influence the UN to add perpetrators of violations against children to its ‘list of shame’, that addendum to the UN’s report that singles out parties who fail to keep children safe during conflict.

(The feature image above is of Marian with Khmer refugee children in a camp on the Thai / Cambodia border, 1980)