Every war is a war against children

CONFLICT / Life stories reflecting some of the worst war scenes we know from the last century.

Ich lebe: Wie Kinder Kriege überstehen. Ein Jahrhundertporträt
Author: Martina Dase Anna Kerber Aishe Malekshahi
Publisher: Kerber Verlag, Germany

It starts with a picture. Eleven-year-old Amal, purple scarf around head and neck, dark green dress, hands-on right hip, in front of a grey shimmering plastic foil wall. She seems almost coquettish had it not been for the look. Amal looks with large, serious eyes directly into the camera, calmly and self-consciously, as if to say: «Look at me, a Syrian refugee. I live in a refugee camp in Lebanon with no future perspective; I own nothing but my dignity.»

This picture was the prelude to a project, which was the continuation of another. In 1919 the English social reformer Eglantyne Jebb became so shocked by reports she saw, pictures of starving children, that she went out and started fundraising for food and medicine for children in war and crisis areas. This led to the creation of Save the Children, today one of the world’s largest politically independent aid organizations for children.

Amal now adorns the front page of an anniversary publication for the organization. It is a collaborative project between the organization’s German communications manager Martina Dase, the Swiss photographer Dominic Nahr, and several other employees. Prominence for the publication includes violinist and Save the Children ambassador Anne-Sophie Mutter, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and EU Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager. They comment on the pictures and link them to their own experiences.

The reporting team has sought out, interviewed and photographed people from Syria, Colombia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nigeria, South Korea, , Spain and Germany. Their life stories reflect some of the worst war scenes we know from the last century. We meet people in all phases of life. Amal lives in a political limbo land. The refugee camp is not formally recognized. The tents cost money, but refugees in Lebanon are not allowed to work, nor to make money. The United Nations Food Program (WFP) grants Amal’s family $27 a month. Then it is easy to understand why Amal has one top-of-the-list wish: magic.

School children seek protection in Ukraine against bombs.

Erich Karl

The German Erich Karl, who died in 2021 at 107 years old, lived with other perspectives. He experienced two world wars, an empire, two dictatorships and two republics: «We were brought up as politically illiterate. My parents said: Do not worry about politics. It brings nothing. «Erich experienced the rebuilding, reconciliation and reunification of his country. He had a view of Allende 2, a Berlin container village from his balcony. These refugees had triggered unrest and scepticism in the neighbourhood. «Let them first arrive», Erich said. ‘Let’s see how it goes. Now they are first and foremost people in need. «That was what he himself was once, too, when people got upset about giving food and shelter to the enemy’s children.

He could have referred to the author George Bernhard Shaw, who declared, «I have no enemies under the age of seven.»

Vanessa is no longer a believer

«My mother tied our sleeves together so we would not lose each other.» The story of 29-year-old Vanessa Ntakirutimana testifies to one of the most brutal genocides in our recent history in Rwanda. She was five years old in 1994 when over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in 100 days. She was one of the approx. 300,000 children who roamed the country without parents. The world community did nothing. Pure coincidences led to Vanessa and her siblings finally being found by NGOs. But childhood ended abruptly the night the mother woke the children up with the words: «Get up, it’s war. We have to go. «That was the last time Vanessa saw her mother.

Vichuta Shelter

The infamous killing fields under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia is a scene few have been able to avoid. More than 1,7 million Cambodians lost their lives during Pol Pot’s communist regime. Among those who experienced the horror up close, as a nine-year-old, is Vichuta Ly.

Her father was arrested and disappeared forever. The rest of the family was driven from their home in Phnom Penh and forced to work in the rice fields. Twelve years old, Vichuta was trained as a child soldier. Five of her 35 family members survived. What were the goals of the regime? To introduce a new (horror) regime, in which enemies – monks, intellectuals, well-educated city dwellers – were to be exterminated. How? For example, as was the case with one of Vichuta’s relatives, by first torturing them, then putting them dying on the railway line. Vichuta Ly, now 53, found a new home in Canada, but she regularly travels back to Cambodia, and today she heads the Legal Support for Children and Women Foundation.

Enemies – monks, intellectuals, well-educated city dwellers – were to be exterminated.

Chukwuemeka Amadi

Powerful images reached many in the late 1960s: children with bloated stomachs due to precarious protein deficiency. This was a consequence of the war in Biafra, a breakaway state in Nigeria that was systematically banned from delivering food. Up to three million people fell victim to this humanitarian catastrophe. The witness in the book is the 54-year-old Nigerian Theophilus Chukwuemeka Amadi, who is today a museum guide at Nigeria’s National War Museum. Had it not been for the family, says Amadi, who «did not bear to see me slowly die, I would not be standing here today.» Help also came from other children. They caught nutritious little lizards, with which Amadi was fed. He thus eventually managed to crawl, then to stand on his feet, and finally to walk – an unforgettable feeling of happiness.

The message in all the stories is reinforced through the pictures. Some of them, such as small contact copies with various motifs, seem primarily to serve design purposes. But the portraits of the protagonists are all the more impressive. Here, photographer Nahr successfully conveys people’s strength, vulnerability, and acceptance of reality. Their controlled sadness. We watch a tableau: Amadi, the survivor of the Biafra War, in colourful clothing, is sitting in his mother’s home, a hut without electricity and running water, lit by a smartphone. He leans sideways with a calm, introverted expression.

Rescue operations

A red thread runs through the whole narrative: Save the Children’s rescue operations. The multifaceted book concept and the team’s thorough investigative efforts to find representative main characters have undoubtedly raised ich lebe well above the level of a regular anniversary publication. Without the work of Save the Children during an entire century, few of the people we meet in the book would be able to say, «I live.»

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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