Often images of children who are the victims of war define our times most graphically. They last forever in the memory and can sometimes even be a catalyst for change. Sometimes.
In 1972 when nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc fled from her ravaged village in central Vietnam – her back on fire from a napalm attack – the picture of the horror was caught by American war photographer Nick Ut.
Arguably this one photograph is still seared in the memories of all who first saw it. At the time it’s greatest impact was as a brutal reminder of the horrific suffering wrought on the children of Vietnam, caught up in an incomprehensible cycle of violence and death. The image still resonates 40 years later.
And so it goes for the boy from Aleppo last week.
The boy, identified as five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, was rescued from the burnt out rubble of his home after an air attack on the Syrian city. He was filmed alone in an ambulance, silently staring into space and wiping blood from his eyes, too shocked to be aware of his injuries.
Such images produced a similar avalanche of anger by “ordinary” people around the world to that of Phan Thi Kim Phuc in 1972. But in the age of social networks little Omran’s horrific suffering went viral within minutes and was the subject of countless debates in social space as well as on terrestrial TV. The hashtag #Syrianboy was one of the top trending topics worldwide. Many people linked this image with that of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach last year.
Much of the highly vocal Twitter activity surrounding Omran’s (and Syria’s) tragedy resulted in a global Q&A about the conflict and its victims: what is going to be done about it? Who is to blame? When will all this bloodletting stop? Why can’t we stop it?
Ordinary people worldwide wanted answers – in real time.
Unfortunately, Aleppo is much like many other Syrian towns and cities – reduced to piles of rock and sand. These endless scenes of violence and destruction are responsible for an estimated 20,000 child deaths in five years, with hundreds of thousands of children uprooted from their homes and suffering brutal, nightmarish violence every day. Many have no families, no one to care for them, little access to food, water, healthcare, education or even a safe place to live.
Save the Children estimates that more than a quarter of a million children in Syria are living under siege. They’re caught in traps, unable to leave, by battling armies which often use them as bargaining chips – or worse.
And it doesn’t stop there. These children are then often exploited by different warring factions for ideological reasons. As a result, their individual tragedies take on further unspeakable horrors in the failed states of Syria, Iraq and Libya where ISIS is radicalising brutalised children to become child soldiers and even suicide bombers.
Using child soldiers is nothing new for tyrants – during the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot famously used radicalised child soldiers as his vanguard during the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. But what is new in the current wave of conflicts is the use of radicalised child suicide bombers by ISIS. According to John Horgan, a researcher at the Georgia State University: “The Islamic State is one of the few groups that is very proud to announce to the world, not only are they doing it (radicalising children to become suicide bombers), but it’s also the future.”
There were two examples last week when a boy of 12 was captured in Iraq just moments before he could set off a bomb strapped to his body. This followed the killing of 54 people at a Turkish wedding party a few days earlier by a 12-year-old suicide bomber.
Children growing and living in circumstances of extreme violence combined with radicalisation are particularly vulnerable. ISIS has made it clear from the start of their reign of terror that children are pivotal to their ideology. Children are encouraged to take part in firing squads, beheadings and public stonings in Iraq and Syria. In 2015, ISIS boasted that at least 143 children were already martyrs. In April this year, the UN claimed 362 children were known to be actively fighting in Syria, most of those fighting for ISIS.
Unfortunately, it’s not a great leap of imagination to believe that a brutalised five-year old with no family left and no hope can become a radicalised teenage soldier and suicide bomber if the conditions allow it.
And there’s the rub.
If the world’s outrage at child war victims and child suicide bombers can be galvanised, then maybe it will create the climate for change that is needed. For politicians and armies to sit around and jaw jaw rather than war war, as Churchill (for all his faults) rightly said.
Without the jaw jaw the wars will continue and Syrian children will suffer continuing violence, while radicalisation will flourish and expand outwards from the ravaged failed states to other disaffected and disenfranchised communities. And we’re now witnessing this in Belgium, France and Germany, among other places. Just this week in the UK it was announced that an anti-radicalisation agenda should be promoted in Britain’s prisons.
Unless action is taken, children and vulnerable young people from as far apart as Syria, Iraq, France and Britain will continue to be groomed by trusted adults and family members who hold harmful, extreme beliefs and have an influence over a child’s life.
You don’t need a war to push extremist views on children. They can be very easily exposed to violent, anti-social, extremist imagery, rhetoric and writings which can lead to the development of a distorted world view in which extremist ideology seems reasonable. In this way they are not being individually targeted, but are the victims of propaganda which seeks to radicalise.
Protecting children from and responding to abuse, neglect, exploitation, violence and war is crucial for girls and boys to live safely and to develop physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually. Everything is interlinked.
We have no idea what the 12-year-old child and his family had been through in their war-torn community for him to become a willing (or unwilling) suicide bomber. War and extremism go hand in hand. Likewise, victims of war like Omran could grow up to become the next generation of ISIS fighter or suicide bomber, or an adult with a normal life if the violence can be stopped.
And it can happen.
After years of painful surgery to restore her body, even Phan Thi Kim Phuc now lives a happy, peaceful life in Canada, far away from burning villages and napalm attacks.
All these children need a voice. If we hear what these thousands of children have to say about their lives and give them a platform, they will speak. Maybe by helping them help themselves we can also make the world a better place for children to live in.
By Andrew Chilvers with Marisa De Jager