How may traumas can Lebanon's children absorb? Experts warn of violence becoming the norm for youngsters
BEIRUT: Over the years, Lebanese children have faced war and bombings enough to make violence a staple in their lives. With the situation becoming increasingly volatile as Lebanese factions are gripped by a lasting and deadly discord, this vulnerable population is left at greater risk. The 2006 war with Israel left more than 1,200 dead, a third of the population displaced, and brought losses of billions of dollars - a heavy toll for a debt-burdened country. One terrorist threat after the other since then has done little to calm the situation down, and children, who constitute around a third of the population of about 4 million, see life as they knew it slowly eroding.
"I lost my daughter, brother and sister in the Qana 2006 massacres [that saw the death of nine adults and 16 children in an Israeli air strike]," said Mahmoud Chalhoub, a survivor. "My son was left for dead and surrounded by corpses on the upper floor of a house in the village, which was targeted by the Israelis all night. He told us he had tried in vain to wake up his dead friend so that he could play with her."
Soha Bsat, communication officer for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), said around one-third of the Lebanese population was displaced during the 2006 war. Many of the displaced were children. Nearly two years after the war, many families are still unable to return to their homes.
"Besides the obvious distress children might have experienced when dealing with the traumatic death of a loved one, they also had to cope with an enormous change in lifestyle and environment," said Maha Damaj, child protection officer at UNICEF.
In the village of Tiri, Abbas survived the bombing of a civilian bus by an Israeli military drone aircraft. The 10-year-old was waving his white shirt from the window, using it as a flag for safe passage when the bus was hit by a rocket that left his mother with severe injuries. "He runs for cover whenever he hears the humming of a jet plane in the distance," says his aunt, Ibtissam Cheito, as Abbas hides behind the family car.
Other repercussions of the war are increased acts of violence children face from one or both parents, and that often results from extreme poverty. Children, mostly boys, are also often forced to abandon school to help support the family financially.
"One has to keep in mind that displaced families will incur more expenses than if they were living in their natural environment, which puts more pressure on children to contribute. More than 70 percent of displaced children will not go back to their former lives," said Damaj.
Besides having to deal with moving into a new home and starting a new school, children must also adapt to dangerous living conditions. "Since the summer of 2006, there have been around 298 victims of mines or cluster bombs, 76 of whom are children," said Damaj. "However, this figure is relatively low compared to the actual danger [of the estimated 1,000,000 cluster bombs dropped by Israel in the final days of the war]."
Children have been educated to identify and avoid possible threats, but teenagers remain at risk since they are more prone to defying authority, or try testing their limits. "Loss of limbs and concussions are common injuries," Damaj said. Children who are victims of Israeli cluster bombs or land mines are treated, but rarely attend follow-up sessions, leaving them in danger of never fully recovering.
Further aggravating the plight of Lebanon's children is the unstable political situation and the increased social polarization along confessional lines. "Kids need stability and a routine," Damaj said. Strikes, booby-trapped cars, and two wars - the 2006 July war as well as the 2007 conflict in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp that pitted the army against the Fatah al-Islam militant group - have disturbed the lives of children, and have become a growing source of anxiety for them.
Eight-year-old Sami Khodr was concerned about his mother when he learned she would attend the recent commemoration February 14 for former Premier Rafik Hariri. "What will I do if they place a bomb in the crowd? I will be left all alone! Who will I live with?" he asked. Such fears illustrate that children are indeed conscious of the instability plaguing the country.
"I forbid my son to watch the news to spare him images of violence," said Nibal Khodr.
Damaj said the unstable Lebanese situation binds parents into an overprotective cycle, and shapes children's view of a world where violence is the norm.
For Khodr, as a mother, surviving Lebanon has become a matter of "taking life one day at a time."
Von: www.dailystar.com.lb, 05.03.2008