Children During Wars

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Some people, like a friend I talked to a couple of days ago, cannot relate to the Russian war in Ukraine. I told him about my personal childhood experience with war and how it affects children in so many ways. Ukrainian children might have the same feelings of anxiety and ambivalence that I felt during the Biafra-Nigerian civil war (1967-1970). I was only five then, and not much different from the faces of innocent young children I see on the television. Some of them are terrified and others are perplexed, trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world around them. I was fearful yet ambivalent during the Nigerian civil war, too. At five years of age, I did not understand death. Yet, I ran for cover inside a backyard bush with my sisters and brothers with each sound of a jet fighter. Once a fighter dropped his ammo and departed, and I realized that I did not die, I would resume my normal daily survival activities of hunting lizards and rodents for food. Until I was much older, I did not even know how close I was to dying from bombs thrown on me by General Yakubu Gowon, who was commanding the Nigerian military at that time.

Based on my background as a child survivor of a civil war, as well as my interest in children’s mental health, I believe that children caught up in adult wars suffer three repercussions. First, there is the obvious immediate effect of death or bodily injuries from the weapons dropped around them. Second, wars disrupt the existing relationships between children and their caregivers. Whether caregivers are killed in conflict or absent because they have gone to fight, children ultimately lose the companionship they had previously enjoyed. Losing the relationship of close family members is a stressful life event for children. Children separated from loved ones are predisposed to all sorts of social and emotional misbehavior later in life, including lack of empathy for others and antisocial behaviors. Third, when children are exposed to war, the psychological trauma of war might persist into adulthood. Furthermore, war survivors might need decades to analyze and fully understand the events of their childhood. For example, it took me 50 years to articulate and write about my childhood experiences during the 1967-1970 Biafra-Nigeria war.

Hopefully, many Ukrainian children who survive the war’s stressful conditions will grow up to become successful members of society. They will study the historical account and documentation of the war. Some will notice how close they were to dying as the battle raged around them. They will question the rationale for the war, beyond what the decision-making adults offered. They will also demand to know why the world took so long to act to relieve their suffering or save their parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends from dying. They will be dismayed reading today’s excuses that merely prolonged the tragedy of the war. They will read about the influential personalities and powerful nations that should have spoken up but failed to do so. No excuse short of stopping the war will satisfy them. They will be grateful for the nations and millions of people who have supported them morally, militarily, and financially.

It still pains me to think of the times when Nigeria was pummeling the Igbos of Biafra in the 1967-1970 civil war. Although some organizations and individuals condemned the attack and supported the Igbos, for which I am forever grateful, only five countries—Haiti, Gabon, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, and Zambia—came to our military and financial aid. As an adult, when I meet people from these countries, I quickly tell them how grateful I am that their folks helped save my life. On the contrary, seeing descendants from countries( Russia and Egypt) who were complicit in my misery evokes distress and revenge inside me.

With the war still raging, the lesson has become loud and clear. Wherever war is fought and innocent people are killed, whether in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Congo, Ukraine, or Nigeria, it affects everybody.

The question is, has everybody with clout spoken out against this Ukrainian-Russian war? Please do if you have not done so. From famous and influential people to international companies must speak up now. Our collective voices, actions, contributions, and sacrifices tremendously help put an end to this senseless loss of lives and the creation of misery.

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