The shocking reality of being a child of war – from Gaza to Ukraine – Metro.co.uk

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Composite image of children in a war-torn city

‘Even though children never start war, they suffer the most’ (Picture: Getty)

In 1996, a group of children boisterously played outside on the streets of a valley village in West Darfur without a care in the world. Without warning, a large billow of dark smoke emitted into the air from the mountain only miles away. 

One of the children, Elzahra Mohammed, age 11 at the time, thought that perhaps houses had caught on fire. 

‘But then we heard the gunshots,’ Elzahra, now 38, tells Metro.co.uk.  ‘It was a very disturbing sound. We saw people running from the mountain into the valley. We didn’t know what was happening.’

The people fleeing shouted to the children that they were being chased, so Elzahra and her friends rushed into their homes to hide. 

‘We were thinking they might come for us next,’ she remembers. 

Frightened and confused, Elzahra huddled in her house with her family. No one could explain to her what was taking place just outside her door. ‘Everyone was traumatised,’ she says. 

In the streets, people attempted to help those who had fled the mountain, including an auntie of Elzahra’s, who had been injured in the conflict. ‘This was my first memory of war,’ she adds.

Elzahra

Elzahra was just 11 when she first experienced war (Picture: Supplied)

In years to come, violent conflict continued to ebb and flow in Sudan. 

‘There were periods it was quiet and safe because of efforts of peacebuilding,’ remembers Elzahra. ‘Then, sometimes, we might be in school and would hear the shouting and gunshots and would have to run back to our houses.’

Throughout her childhood Elzahra came into contact with injured people and death, often standing in front of the hospital watching as bodies were brought in. 

It was an experience that would go on to have both immediate and long-term impacts on her. 

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‘Even though children never start war, they suffer the most,’ explains Dr Unni Krishnan of Plan International, the leading global children’s charity. He has spent more than 25 years working with people, including children, who have endured natural disasters and conflict. 

The most evident impacts are physical injuries sustained in war. Dr Krishnan says that as children’s bodies are more ‘tender’, they are more susceptible to serious injury or even death as a result of missile strikes, debris, landmines and ammunition. 

On a psychosocial level, children of war are often separated from their parents or guardians, either due to death or displacement, which can lead to acute loneliness. 

Dr Unni Krishnan

Dr Unni Krishnan has spent more than 25 years working with people, including children, who have endured natural disasters and conflict (Picture: VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI)

Youngsters may also cope with the violence they witness by withdrawing emotionally, refusing to engage. Or perhaps become aggressive, lashing out and bullying those around them. 

‘Then there are psychosomatic symptoms like headaches, chest pains, palpitations, and difficulty breathing,’ adds Krishnan. ‘Some may find it difficult to speak and in extreme situations, may turn to self harm.’



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Tragically, these are scenarios hundreds of thousands of children are still going through today with conflicts raging in Ukraine, Syria, Gaza and Israel.

Fatima, who has been changed to protect her identity, is just one of the many young people currently displaced in East Gaza. 

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Her family of seven, along with another large family, share a small apartment, where they hope to continue to find shelter amid the bombs falling around them each day. 

Fatima says she is ‘always afraid’, even at night when she sleeps.

‘I always think about the corner in the house that I should sleep in order to protect myself,’ the 23-year-old tells Metro.co.uk. ‘In case a bomb hits and I am sleeping next to the wall, will the wall protect me or will it fall on me? You are always thinking about how to save your life, even though the possibility of survival is basically 0%.

‘If the shrapnel hit you, it can kill you or if not, you’ll get paralysed for the rest of your life.’

With scant food, water, or electricity, the two families in the small apartment are just trying to survive. 

TOPSHOT - Children react during the funeral of the Faojo family, killed in Israeli bombing on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 11, 2023, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement continue. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP) (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

Children attending the funeral of the Faojo family, killed in Israeli bombing on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip last November (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

‘We are all stressed,’ adds Fatima, a Plan International Youth Advocate. ‘Every person is trying as much as they can to stay calm and not to snap at one another other. I try to ignore any hurtful words that might come from my family or siblings towards me.’

As a young woman, she is responsible for washing up, tidying, cleaning, and cooking, but with the start of the war, she is also responsible for many of the tasks men and boys would normally do. 

‘The load is bigger on us women and girls,’ she says. 

Krishnan describes children’s minds as balloons that can only take so much air before popping, when it comes to dealing with the stress of what is going on around them. 

‘What happens in war and conflict, the repeated bombardment and pressure that gets into them often breaks them,’ he says. 

Elzahra

Although Elzahra has gone on to have a successful job and raise a family, she still suffers from the trauma she experienced as a child (Picture: Supplied)

While Elzahra wouldn’t consider herself ‘popping’, she recalls having nightmares about her family dying throughout her childhood, a way she thinks she processed the trauma and loss around her. Even today, she still goes to sleep dreaming about war. 

At 13, she was left paralysed for two months as a result of the high levels of anxiety she was experiencing. 

‘I couldn’t move,’ she remembers. ‘I felt I was useless and weak. It was very painful. I couldn’t go out to play with my friends or go to school, which made me sad and lonely. It was like life was passing me by and leaving me behind. Before this illness, I wasvery active and playful, and a committed student.’

Having lost their income because of the war, the family struggled to collect the money to send her for treatment in Sudan’s capital city.

It was a childhood that unsurprisingly went on to impact her as an adult. 

Elzahra was encouraged by her family to become a doctor. ‘They told me I needed to go to medical school to become a doctor and save them,’ she remembers. ‘So I had to study hard.’

However, underneath her determination for success was a frightened, sad child. It wasn’t until she started university at 19, when she had a psychological assessment done and was diagnosed with depression, that the impact of war on Elzahra was fully recognised. 

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‘I stayed alone every night,’ she remembers. ‘I was afraid of going out in case someone would attack me.’

She was told she could attend the hospital for support, but the stigma of depression kept her from accessing the support. 

‘People would have said I was crazy,’ she recalls. 

Although she went on to become a fully qualified doctor, get married, have three children, and move to the safety of Khartoum in 2021, Elzahra still feels the effects of living through war as a child and young adult. 

‘The sound of military aircraft, air conditioning clicking on, or something falling to the ground makes me scared,’ she says. ‘My heart races fast. My eyes become big. I think it is post traumatic stress disorder.’

When she hears about ongoing conflict happening around the world, Elzahra once again remembers her own memories as if they were happening right now. 

‘I imagine all the girls who like me, are suffering,’ she says. ‘I become very sad and tears come from my eyes. Little girls do no start wars, but they pay an expensive price.’

After leaving Khartoum in June 2023, when war broke out once again, Elzahra fled with her family to Egypt. 

KYIV, UKRAINE - MARCH 20: Schoolchildren attend a Ukrainian language class while sheltering with their teachers in a metro station during an air raid alert on March 20, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. As the large-scale war with Russia entered its second year, the fiercest fighting was concentrated in the east and south, but residents of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities live with the constant threat of aerial attack. (Photo by Roman Pilipey/Getty Images)

Schoolchildren attend a Ukrainian language class while sheltering with their teachers in a metro station during an air raid alert (Photo by Roman Pilipey/Getty Images)

‘I just stayed in my room alone,’ she remembers. ‘I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I couldn’t eat . It took two months to realise we were finally safe. What happened in my childhood made me a survivor, but I don’t want anyone to go through what I have gone through. Especially my little girls who look at me and ask: “Mama, why is this happening? I am very afraid”.’

Even when children manage to escape war, Dr Krishnan says ‘The scars never disappear. They will remain there, and a small provocation could trigger them.

‘They are often concerned about their futures, their jobs and their homes,’ he goes on. ‘Add other factors like another war – it has a huge impact of their psyche.’

The normal outlets for stress management – going for a walk, visiting friends, and engaging in hobbies – don’t happen in the midst of conflict. Instead, their fears are often internalised. 

Dr Unni Krishnan

Even when children manage to escape war, Dr Krishnan says ‘The scars never disappear’ (Picture: VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI)

‘We are being killed without any fault of our own,’ says Fatima, who has tragically already lost her uncle, cousins and grandmother in the conflict. ‘I’m trying to hold myself together and not get bombed, and I do not know what more I can do. We feel helpless.’

Outside, she sees children ‘thrown into the streets’ with no one to save or bury them. Children with whole lives ahead of them, like her. ‘I think about my friends who have died a lot. I cannot comprehend it all.

‘I had so many dreams,’ Fatima reflects. ‘I wanted to travel and take photos outside of my country. I want to have a book in my name because I write too. There is so much I still want to do.’

Despite the enormous toll of war on children and young people, Dr Krishnan insists they are not ‘lost cases.’

‘Even in such unacceptable and traumatising situations, we have seen amazing resilience,’ he says. ‘But that doesn’t mean they should be subjected to repeated and continuous suffering.’ 

If you would like to make a donation to Plan International UK’s Children’s Emergency Appeal, click here.


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