The Trauma of Children in Conflict and War – Part Two in a series on Trauma and Conflict

The stories about pillaging and raping soldiers and marauding militias are part of the entire history of mankind. There is no doubt that this shameful aspect of human cruelty haunts us since our earliest pre-historical times. In narratives it plays a side role at best. The heroism and the suffering of the soldier comes first. However, at all times children have witnessed their fathers being killed and their mothers being brutally raped, and they have suffered from the same cruelties themselves, committed by armies, militias, gangs, and mobs. Children have been separated from their parents, endured unspeakable atrocities, survived the murder of their peers under piles of dead bodies or hiding in the bush. This is the reality until today. And never before in human history the number of civilian casualties has outnumbered the military casualties as much as today.

Nowhere this is more devastating for communities and societies than when acts of genocide are being committed. Generations suffer. The Holocaust, the genocide of Srebrenica, or the genocide in Rwanda are only examples of these darkest chapters of mankind, which is still persisting against all vows to let it never happen again. Ethnic and political cleansing by brutal dictators adds, during World War II, and today: Even where genocide could be prevented by bold action, such as perhaps recently in Burundi, or the Central African Republic, the run-up violence exceeds all imagination, creating thousands or hundreds of thousands of victims surviving the worst atrocities of mankind.

Children grow up with the consequences of what has been done to them and their parents, others again grow up with the knowledge that they are born because their mothers were raped. Raped mothers struggle with acceptance in patriarchal societies. Raped men even more. Children of rape, raised by a traumatized raped mother already struggling to love her unwanted child unconditionally, they also experience being pariahs in their communities1. As has been said earlier, childhood trauma is different from the trauma of adult survivors of conflict in that trauma is perceived as an event or a series of events in life for adults. It is defining the life of children. It is their never ending reality, and the younger they are, the fewer, if any, cognitive tools they have to comprehend what happens to them and to put it into a context of accountability of others. For young children, often the only way to make sense to painful events is to believe that they themselves must be responsible for it.

If their mothers and fathers suffer from being unable to love them unconditionally, they inevitably believe they are responsible for what happens. If a mother is separated by militias from her infant, and if the mother or the infant, or both, are abused, the infant will conclude that it is punishment for something they are responsible for themselves. If children are abducted by Boko Haram, or recruited as child soldiers by the Lord’s Resistance Army, mere survival under conditions known as “Stockholm Syndrome” will add.

Trauma therapy is over-boarding with stories of adult survivors of childhood abuse who finally recognize that the inability, say for example, of their mother to prevent them from their father’s rage, also constitutes abuse: Their mothers could not save them. Understanding abuse requires to take the view of the victim, notwithstanding whether malicious intent, involuntary action, or omission constituted the trauma. Abuse profoundly impacts on the world of a toddler who has no concept of complex human relations. Subsequently, the adult abuse survivor will suffer from a deformed capacity to establish human relations, in countless variations.

That black sheep within their own peacekeeping forces and civilian parts of peace operations contribute to this trauma in conflict and post-conflict situations, is collectively shame-driving the International Community. This sits at the heart of current zero-tolerance efforts against sexual exploitation and abuse of local populations by soldiers, police, and civilians in national or multilateral engagement of United Nations2 and regional actors, such as NATO, EU, AU, and others. Being aware of the harm beyond imagination, the International Community at least has begun to “clean it’s own side of the street”, which is laudable.

But the International Community is also defined by the helplessness of many who care about humanity and decry the atrocities through soldiers, militia, gangs, mobs, violent extremists and international terrorists against civilian populations including children, whether in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan/Darfur, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic of Congo, Burundi, Niger, Mali, Libya, recently Mozambique, Myanmar, and so many other places. Increasingly the divisions within the UN Security Council do not allow finding a common position that can be enforced. In cases of mandates being given to UN or partner organizations, we are confronted with an increasing inability to stop atrocities under our eyes, and to help countless trauma victims in the aftermath of conflict: Respect for ceasefires or commitment to peace agreements is as much waning as the acceptance of the UN itself, not least because of the disunity amongst those who constitute the UN: Member States, and especially the Security Council Members. Peace operations that can not sufficiently engage in deterring atrocities will lose political credibility, such as in South Sudan, peace operations that engage in order to protect civilian populations with robust means, such as in Mali or the Democratic Republic of Congo find themselves being accused of bias, increasingly getting under fire themselves. The plight of civilians, especially children, continues.

The situation is getting worse: The systematic use of violence against civilian populations, and especially of sexual violence as a weapon of war and conflict, spreads. Until recently the opinion that conflicts and victims of armed conflict constantly fell to a low after the end of the Cold War could be heard frequently3. Since a few years however, voices, including the Secretary General of the United Nations himself, express worry about the renewed increase of conflicts4 and the return of the Cold War5. These messages seem to indicate another, reverse, trend in terms of numbers of conflicts. Research is surfacing that demonstrates that 60 % of conflicts in the early 2000s relapsed within five years6. The trend towards an ever more increasing share of civilians in casualties from conflict and war is reaching horrible numbers: In contemporary conflicts, as much as 90 percent of casualties are among civilians, most of whom are women and children7. Women in war-torn societies can face specific and devastating forms of sexual violence, which are sometimes deployed systematically to achieve military or political objectives. It is in this context that entire traumatized generations emerge.

Global migration of surviving traumatized young people throws them into the merciless arms of organized criminals8 and spills them into societies which are overwhelmed and increasingly hostile. Families with cruel abuse stories at their place of origin, attempting to get into the United States, find themselves in another horror: The arrest of the adults and the forced and cruel separation of their infants, toddlers and children from them without any prospect to know how to maintain contact, or when they may be re-unified9. Across the globe, whether in the U.S., Europe, or in Bangladesh facing refugees from Myanmar10, traumatized children continue to experience severe traumatizing even in places they have been told might be their hope for a better future. Children who have been thrown on smuggler’s boats in Libya by their parents experience that a European country denies access to a port of entry11. Trauma becomes a constant fact of life. Alienation both on the side of victims and receiving host societies’ communities leads to “why bother”. Antagonization leads to mutual resentment and hate. The spiral of conflict continues.

Heartbreaking stories on display in memorial sites such as Potocari12 on the Srebrenica genocide, or the memorial site in Kigali on the Rwandese genocide exemplify the plight of children with examples. And every now and then, media is creating attention, such as on the children of rape in Rwanda. The world needs examples in order to generate understanding and compassion, but does this translate into action in light of the sheer size? What do we know about the impact of mass trauma on children and adults by conflict and war? How well do we understand the connection between healing of individuals and communities, and societies, on the one hand and reconciliation as a core pre-condition for lasting peace?

So, how well do we understand the threat, how well do we understand the vulnerability of peace processes by this threat, and how much do we know about mitigation of this threat? As a deeply involved practitioner since almost twenty years my answer is depressing: Those who know appear to be overwhelmed. Political operatives defining policy are aware but have to make priority decisions that have to exclude this problem, simply because of it’s magnitude and the limitations both on knowledge how to help, and how to generate willingness and resources to do so. Boots on the ground come first. But if the trauma of entire generations contributes to most crucial impediments to reconciliation processes, is it not that we should focus on, at least, to the same extent? Again, as a practitioner, my experience is that prevention will be acknowledged as being necessary by All, but it does not generate awareness and public willingness to act: The story of a dog biting a man does not carry news. The story of a man biting a dog will make the news. The story of preventing a man to bite a dog hasn’t been tested and may be similarly boring than the story of a dog biting a man, except from a bit of amusement in social media. In the same vein, robust military action may catch the public attention, but the more silent work of civilians, and international police under the UN umbrella, assisting in the recovery of communities and societies from conflict, does not.

If this already is true, how much more must be true in relation to a phenomenon of whole young generations being badly traumatized and how this may carry forward the potential for future conflicts? In his book “The Responsibility to Protect”13 Gareth Evans sums up a disappointing account of scientific methods to predict conflict, so that preventative action can focus on it. At the end we only know one thing, he says: The likelihood of conflict is twice as high in countries where there was a conflict earlier. For me, a link to entirely traumatized generations is obvious.

11A very insightful example is this documentation by France24:

Against the odds: The Rwandan women raising a family despite genocide and rape – France 24

22For the UN:; retrieved June 18, 2018

Other organizatons have established similar policies

33 leads to an amazing data visualisation within an interactive documentary that examines the human cost of the second World War and the decline of battle deaths in the years since the war.

This is the crucial point: this extraordinary visualization puts battle field deaths and civilian deaths until WW2 into a proportion that demonstrates the ever higher number of civilian casualties. However, the project is not able to generate other figures than battle field deaths for the time post WW2 until 2015. Towards the end of the demonstration, the argument that we live within an extraordinary long period of peace is being upheld.

44Sebastian von Einsiedel, Louise Bosetti, James Cockayne, Cale Salih & Wilfred Wan – Civil War Trends and the Changing Nature of Armed Conflict;

United Nations University, Centre for Policy Research; April 25, 2017;, retrieved June 17, 2018


88See my article “Why global cooperation on peace and security is needed – An argument against divisiveness from the perspective of fighting organized crime”, June 9, 2018

99For many:

I Can’t Go Without My Son,’ a Mother Pleaded as She Was Deported to Guatemala – The New York Times

Statement of APA President Regarding the Traumatic Effects of Separating Immigrant Families

U.N. Rights Chief Tells U.S. to Stop Taking Migrant Children From Parents – The New York Times

1111Italy’s New Populist Government Turns Away Ship With 600 Migrants Aboard – The New York Times

1313Gareth Evans: The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All; Brookings Institution Press (September 4, 2009)

One thought on “The Trauma of Children in Conflict and War – Part Two in a series on Trauma and Conflict

  1. Pingback: Justice Being Served | Stefan Feller

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