Children – innocent victims of wars

A return to the Geneva Conventions is needed

by Eliane Perret

After the horrors of the Second World War, humanity seemed to come to its senses. Never again war! 3.5 per cent of the world’s population at the time had lost their lives. For the first time in history, more civilians than soldiers had been killed. Many people succumbed to their injuries after the war or died as a result of forced labour, abuse, cold, and hunger. There were at least 50 million victims – more recent research even speaks of over 75 million. It was the most devastating war in history.1
  After WWII, international treaties and agreements were created to make lasting peace possible. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drawn up within the framework of the UN and adopted in 1948, stated with exceptional clarity: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
  Particular emphasis was placed on the protection of the civilian population, especially children. This gave rise to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the two Additional Protocols of 1977, and the Additional Protocol of 2005. They form the core of international humanitarian law and are intended to protect all persons who are not or are no longer involved in hostilities. On 20
 November 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 38 stated, among other things, with regard to armed conflict: “In accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict”.2

Broken contracts,
disregarded agreements

Since then, however, it has become clear that the treaties and agreements made at the time are no longer honoured by the major powers. Iraq, Indochina, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, the Congo, Syria, Ukraine, Gaza and many other hotbeds of war that do not let us sleep. A study by the US Congressional Research Service counted 251 “military interventions” (a euphemism for wars) between 1992 and 2022, driven by a small, influential minority whose actions are motivated by greed for power and money. And so the killing and dying continues.
  Human casualties are considered “collateral damage” and are accepted as an accessory to war. This was demonstrated in 1996 by a statement by Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State. A UN report had previously established that no fewer than 576,000 Iraqi children (more than in Hiroshima) had died between 1991 and the end of 1995 as a result of the harsh economic sanctions enforced by the US. In a television interview, Albright affirmed that the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi children had been an acceptable price to pay: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it”.3
  And it continued. In 2017, the UN stated in its annual report that 8,000 children had been killed or maimed in armed conflicts: 3,500 in Afghanistan (almost a quarter more than in the previous year), 1,340 in Yemen, and 1,300 in Syria. These attacks on children were “unacceptable”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. But still the carnage continued.
  A few years later, on 20 November 2023 – one month after the war in Gaza had begun and civilian casualties were mounting – Pope Francis tweeted on International Children’s Rights Day: “No war is worth the tears of children”. This was little but a soothing voice in the icy silence surrounding the carnage in Gaza where, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, at least 35,000 people have been killed, over 60 per cent of them civilians, the majority of them women and children. Gaza is an unimaginable horror.4

Never again war – already forgotten?
A reminder

In devastated Europe alone, there were 20 million children who had become war orphans after the Second World War. Others had lost important family members. One of them was the German-American developmental psychologist Emmy E. Werner-Jacobsen, born in 1929. Her childhood and adolescence in Germany were characterised by suffering, poverty, deprivation, loss of loved ones, fear and insecurity. At the end of the war, her father was the only male family member still alive.
  Fortunately for her, she had the opportunity to catch up on her school education, which had been interrupted by the war. Despite, or perhaps because of, her harrowing experiences during the war years, she dedicated her life as a researcher to children who, like herself, had a difficult start in life.5 In her book, Through the eyes of innocents: children witness World War II,6 she gave a voice to children in Europe, Asia, and the United States whose lives were shaped by war experiences during the Second World War.
  In her book Werner analysed diary entries from children and young people or asked them in later years to reflect on their war experiences. She introduced the book with thanks, “… for my mother, who sent me back to school when the world I knew lay in rubble. What children experience today in war-torn countries must not leave anyone untouched”.

Innocent victims

The subjects in her book speak for thousands of other children who suffer the same burdens today and must not be forgotten. They were witnesses and victims of terrible violence, endured the loss of loved ones, or were victims of propaganda strategies. Stressful experiences and great suffering were part of everyday life. Children watched as their fathers had to go into military service. One child, Yuri, whose father had volunteered for combat duty after the German army invaded the Soviet Union, recalled the day when it was time to say goodbye: “I cried, and for the first time I saw tears in my father’s eyes”. (p. 49; all quotes and page numbers refer to the German version of the book).
  During war, children have to deal with life-threatening situations at a young age. For example, a five-year-old boy in London was rescued when his thin, trembling voice was heard from the rubble of a bombed-out house. He had been singing God save the Queen. As the boy later explained to his rescuers: “My father was a miner and told me that people in mines knock and sing when they are buried. I was so squashed in that I couldn’t knock, and I’d only just started school, and ‘God save the Queen’ was the only song I knew”. (p. 34)
  Other children affected by war could not understand why they were treated as if they were dangerous and had committed serious crimes. This was the experience of Japanese American children who had been living in the US for years. They were taken to internment camps with their families after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. As one child quoted by Werner-Jacobseid wrote in a diary, “They put barbed wire everywhere, and there are eight watchtowers … I just don’t understand why the government still has to lock us up after they’ve already put us in the middle of no man’s land.” (p. 122)
  The question of what the war experiences would do to them preoccupied many children and young people. Josephine originally from Ireland then living in a suburb of London, a 16-year-old teenager, wrote: “At night I lie in bed and listen to the sirens. We’re so far gone that instead of getting up and running to the bunker, we just put cotton wool in our ears, pull the blankets over our heads and pray that the next bomb isn’t meant for us. […] I often wonder what kind of life this is for a teenager, but all I can think about is how this will affect me in the long run, if I survive it”. (p. 36) There was much that was inhuman and overwhelming that these children experienced.
  Willemien, 13 years old, saw Jewish children being loaded into a goods wagon in her home town of Nijmegen (Netherlands): “I was frozen with fear. I knew what was happening ... I couldn’t talk about it at home. I cried my eyes out in bed and was finally able to tell my sister about it. After that I felt a little better, but I often think back to that moment and see it clearly in front of me like in a film, but in slow motion.” (p. 45f.)
  Bernd from Germany remembered his roommate in the evacuation of children to the country. His teacher had taken the other boy aside and read him a letter: “We didn’t see the boy again until the evening, pale and silent, he crawled into his bed, pulled the covers over his head, and only after hours, when I happened to wake up, did I hear his crying ... It was only after a few days that we learnt that his mother and grandmother and his little sister had been killed in a bombing raid.” (p. 76)
  Fortunately, there were sometimes surprising moments that protected the children from developing an enemy image and hatred for those responsible for their suffering, that might have later burdened their lives. Nine-year-old Lucien remembered Rotterdam being bombed by the Germans. Everything was in ruins and entire streets were in flames. Lucien heard music. It came from a bombed-out church where, miraculously, the organ was still working. A German officer played preludes and fugues by Bach. Lucien remembers: “It touched me deeply. I mean, the church was in ruins, but he played the organ. Nobody can tell me that this man was bad through and through”. (p. 29)
  Many children were sensitive observers. Robin, aged
 7, met German prisoners of war in England and remembered those encounters: “My encounter with the prisoners of war was an interesting experience. I discovered that people I had feared and hated – who I had been taught to fear and hate – were just like us and not the horrible, terrifying enemies they were made out to be. It was then that I learnt for the first time to understand other people and not to see first impressions as complete, final and irrevocable”. (p. 40)
  Sometimes thoughtful teachers helped the children to recognise the human side in the horror. Nancy from Minnesota later recalled one of them: “I remember this teacher … She said: put yourselves in their place! So many of us are against the Germans, against the Japanese, but it’s not these people who make the decisions, it’s their leaders. I have never forgotten that message. She was unique – a truly good person. She lived next door to us and was married to a man who died in the war, and yet she had this message for us.” (p. 103) Thus, alongside very sad experiences, there were always moments of surprising humanity, which were important signposts for their later thoughts, feelings, and actions.

‘End the heinous wars …’

All the children and young people Emmy Werner wrote about endured the most difficult experiences. In her book they speak on behalf of all the other innocent victims of war. Even though many of them have become life-affirming adults, even the most resilient have been left with scars, as Emmy Werner writes.
  What children are experiencing today in war-torn countries must not leave anyone untouched. They existed then and they exist today in Gaza, in the Congo ... They hold up a mirror to the Albrights of this world, because they have to bear the responsibility. What Shigeru Tasaka from Japan, a third-grader, wrote six years after the terrible bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki also applies to them: “For the first time I realised how heinous and terrifying war is [...]. I believe [...] that through the atomic bomb people will understand how barbaric, tragic, uncivilised and hateful war is, and end the heinous wars that exist today”. (p. 199)
  That was seventy years ago!  •

1 Julia Monn and Anja Lemcke. “75 Jahre sind seit dem Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs vergangen, ein Datenberg ist geblieben – eine Übersicht” (75 years have passed since the end of the Second World War, a mountain of data remains – an overview). In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 8 May 2020;
4 cf. Hass, Amira. “In Rafah, people flee to nowhere in a desert of devastation and sand”; in: Haaretz of 15 May 2024
5 Emmy E. Werner-Jacobson (*26 May 1929 in Eltville am Rhein; †12 October 2017) emigrated to the USA after the Second World War and studied psychology. She wrote her doctoral thesis at the University of Nebraska and became a professor in the Department of Human and Community Development at UC Davis. She was a pioneer in resilience research and became world famous for her ground breaking studies on children from the Kauai Islands.
6 Werner, Emmy E. Through the eyes of innocents: children witness World War II, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 2000

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