Two photographs taken recently in Aleppo city in war-torn Syria and published in the media have taken the world by storm. One has a small boy, smoke-blackened and bleeding, seated inside an ambulance and giving a vacant look. His poker-faced expression doesn't speak of any feeling of agony. It seems the poor boy has transcended the boundaries of all earthly pains and equations, and he has no complaints against anybody. The photo has gone viral on the social media. The 4-year-old boy, called Omran, came under a bomb attack from plane in Aleppo, along with his family. His badly injured older brother, senior by one year, has died in hospital two days later.
The other photo shows a painting, drawn by another injured child. It depicts how a kid views war and its brutalities in Aleppo. Stunningly, the painting is chiefly focused on people attacked by bombs dropped from a helicopter. This child is under treatment at a hospital in the war-ravaged Aleppo.
In order to get a portrayal of the impact of the raging war on children in Syria, one needs not take sides. All the rival air attacks, shelling or bomb blasts mentally shatter the panic-stricken children equally. These hostilities boil down to a universal and grim truth: children go on suffering more than the adults. In the context of a certain community or population, children have been seen bearing the brunt of battles and wars. Like the adults under attack, children also fall victim to hostilities in varied types of circumstances. In the case of the adults, the question of allegiance to one or another warring party may arise. This carries no meaning for children. They get injured by bomb splinters or die instant deaths not knowing their fault. Even if they can manage to escape physical harms, scourges like hunger, displacement, destitution and epidemics await lots of them. Children with parents or orphaned going through ordeals are a common spectacle in the modern wars.
Apart from prompting mindless killing of innocent children by enemy forces, the two World Wars in the last century have been behind many an ordeal befalling kids. Even with wars long over, children in many countries have been seen suffering the domino effects of the conflicts. Large-scale wars apart, localised or regional hostilities also have a devastating impact on children. We may not have to look backwards to a distant past. The theatres of war in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa in the later part of the last century emerge as places soaked with children's blood. The air there is heavy with the cries and screams of kids hit by wars. Children fleeing genocide in the 1971 Bangladesh along with their parents, and wasting away in refugee camps, are now part of history. The overall situation has not changed much. With a few fronts now quiet, the newer ones continue to emerge. The cycle of children's sufferings has thus continued to be on the move even in the 21st century.
It is indeed an irony that even during the glory days of ancient civilisations, children had to endure the similar fate. It had continued until the medieval and post-medieval times. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the pyrrhic battles and conquests of foreign lands stood witness to lots of atrocities with women and children comprising the major segment of victims. In many instances children were mercilessly slaughtered and their mothers looted away by the victorious soldiers. These cruelties had their precedents in the invasions made by the earlier marauding kings and emperors. In contrast to their amazing heights in the pursuit of different branches of knowledge and artistic creativity, the rulers of ancient Egypt could not subdue war-mongering. As part of displays of chivalry, the pharaonic invasions have in some way been intrinsic to varied forms of brutality. A considerable part of these savageries would be targeted at women and children in the conquered territories. The periodic ritual of war has continued through almost all the civilisations. In fact, cruelty to or indifference for children in particular has been around since mankind began its march.
The 20th century has witnessed two World Wars and a few protracted regional wars in Asia. In these hostilities, children have periodically been seen being made to pay the price of follies committed by the elders. The scene of a girl screaming and running frenziedly on a street in the suburban Saigon after catching napalm bomb flames in 1975 during the Vietnam War remains frozen on the frame of modern history. The image of the frightened girl, writhing in pain, has since kept reminding man of the great human toll exacted by brutal wars caused by invaders' villainy. This wickedness, when coupled with a mix of chauvinism and ideological frenzy, gives rise to hubris. A form of megalomania, this perverse overestimation of the self makes way for lots of angst that suck in vulnerable parties into confrontations. From nasty civil wars, ethnic cleansing, pogroms to overrunning of a territory by another --- these hostilities appear in newer and crueler forms as time wears on. In this way, the 20th and the early 21st centuries have been made to endure some of the darkest sagas in human history. Invariably making children helpless victims, these happenings have at one stage become endemic to some regions in sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel. Children caught in the middle of a war, and thus bombed or bullet hit and killed, became a common scenario. Children belonging to minor ethnic groups have been found burnt alive beside their parents. These seemingly never-ending hostilities remind us of the heart-rending spectacles in the now-defunct Biafra. Children starving to death on streets or lying unattended in bullet-ridden hospitals once became synonymous with the so-called 'Biafra state' in Nigeria.
That children have been occupying a dominant place on the list of war-ravaged people of late is fact, unpalatable though. Those having a firm faith in human virtues may not feel inclined to accept it. Yet lots of people cannot look the other way. In the long-festering Middle East imbroglio, with Syria at the centre-stage, children have veritably emerged as emblems of the beleaguered region. It's by a twist of circumstances that the name of an Aylan or an Omran has reached the media and people around the world. Perhaps hundreds of other Aylans have been washed into the sea after lying dead on a beach for days. How many of the ramshackle boats filled with refugees, including children, could be rescued or spotted before they sank? Few can say for sure as to how many more Omrans will be found in war-time ambulances --- speechless and blood-smeared, in the agonisingly grinding hostilities. We have to grope for the apt words to get to the core of the war-painting done by the child bomb victim in Aleppo. The task involves bouts of depression. It's disquieting to think of the impact air attacks make on a child's mind. The impression left by a helicopter shelling or bombing on the mind of the Aleppo child is shared by all children in war. During the World War-II, 13-year-old Dutch girl Anne Frank experienced the horrors of Nazi occupation of Netherlands almost the same horrifying way. Anne and other family members were hiding in the sealed-off rooms of her father's business office for two years. The rooms were located at the back of that office in Amsterdam. The teenage girl's two-year ordeal was scathingly narrated in her diary she had kept during the Nazi occupation. Originally written in Dutch, the diary later came out in all the major world languages. The frightening experiences of children caught in wars smack of things painful. These leave a lasting impact on their tender minds. Many children find it hard to get over these nightmares. For children the truth is old and universal: wars offer only dreadful woes and shocks. Adults can manage space for occasional respites. Kids cannot. Panic haunts them during their days and nights. Life goes upside down for them.
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