Children are often regarded as the first victims of any war. Being especially vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and trafficking, children caught in wars are often lost, mistreated, tortured or killed. Some of them are made into child soldiers and go out into the frontlines, while others have to take on the responsibility of fending for themselves and their siblings in an ever-violent environment. Either way, it is undeniable that children are forced to grow up quickly during a war, and many do not survive.
The term “war children” usually refers to the children born during a war, especially to a native parent and a parent of a foreign military force. Being in such a precarious position is usually threatening to the child. For one, they tend to face constant discrimination in the society they were born into, as they are seen as the offspring of a parent who fought for the enemy or collaborated with enemy forces. Their parents, usually the one who was native, can also be shunned by society for their betrayal of social values. If the native parent is the mother, she is commonly disowned by family, friends and the society. The community may also threaten to kill the child, the mother, or both. Even in the years following a war, a child of such a union is often still associated with a parent whose nation or organization has committed war crimes. This can incite feelings of guilt and shame in the child, even if they had nothing to do with their parents’ or country’s deeds.
For example, children were born during World War II to fathers who were part of the Nazi-German forces occupying foreign regions. Some experienced identity issues up till the 1980s, while others officially acknowledged their status. A collection of twelve interviews was published in Born Guilty, describing the feelings of these people who had at least one parent associated with the German forces that were occupying Norway.
Often, the mother of such children would take measures to keep the father’s true identity a secret. They would most commonly either choose to stay with a local man who would pretend to be the father of the child, claim the father was dead or had left, send the child to an orphanage, join the occupying country and accept their welfare, or have an abortion. Both the mother and child usually continue to suffer repercussions even post-war, where they would be tortured, harassed or discriminated against. Decades after World War II, negative sentiments about the women and their war children still lingered.
Child Soldiers and Servants
During times of war, countries usually need as many soldiers as they can get and are willing to close an eye to the real age of any able civilians. Numerous child soldiers between the ages of 13 and 17 served in the Civil War, claiming they were over 18. The youngest children, some aged nine or ten, became military drummers who would facilitate communication on the battlefield, signaling different commands such as “attack” or “retreat”. Other children were used as messengers who would navigate the battlefield, running important battle messages between commanders.
The actual number of underage soldiers was never verified, since the teenagers applying for the army would not have stated their real age. Some historians believe that up to a fifth of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were younger than 18. The Civil War is sometimes referred to as the “Boys’ War”, and many of the soldiers aged 13 to 17 were wounded or killed in battle.
One of the most famous child soldiers who served in the Civil War is Johnny Clem, who first tried to join the Union Army when he was nine, but was rejected due to his size. Despite that, he persistently tagged along with the 22nd Michigan regiment and became their drummer. At thirteen years of age, he was allowed to officially join the Union Army, rising through the ranks until he became a Brigadier General.
Other children who did not fight in the fields served in the army camps instead, cooking and cleaning for the soldiers. Although they were not in the direct heat of battle, they were still very near the frontlines and in a vulnerable position.
Children at Home
Some children stay at home while their nation goes through war. However, life in a warring country is not easy either. Since many of the adults are usually off to serve in the army, the children may have to work extra and take on the adults’ jobs to cover the entire family. Some children also live in fear of not knowing whether their family members will return from the war. Additionally, living in a region ravaged by war can be traumatizing and a horrific sight for children. They may hear gunshots and siege craft operating through the night, see soldiers marching by to battle, and have their homes, crops and livestock raided by enemy forces.
Children living in war zones usually also have their daily lives disrupted by the war. They live in constant anxiety, unsure of whether they are really safe. Infrastructure is halted and children are unable to go to school and continue their education. Food is scarce and children often starve or live on rations. This disruption often lasts as long as the war, and in some cases, life never returns to normal. In the ongoing war in Syria, many children have been out of school for months or years. Without a permanent home or a community to settle down in, the children can only live each day wondering when they will be able to carry on with their everyday routines again.
Additionally, children make prime targets for kidnappings, human experimentation or slavery, all of which have occurred in different wars around the world. Sometimes, children are captured from their homes along with their families and made into prisoners of war. During World War II, German and Japanese concentration camps were filled with prisoners of war, many of which were children. They were subject to the same treatment and torture adults were. Many were killed along with the adults or succumbed to the harsh conditions.
Although children have never instigated any wars or conflicts between nations, they are arguably the ones that suffer the most from the actions of the adults around them, whether they were born into a taboo union or trapped amid violence. Children are still suffering from both direct and indirect consequences of war, and for most of them, their lives are never the same again.
Unfortunately, many children have fallen victim to the harsh reality of war. Those who do survive end up with post-war trauma, haunting memories and no escape from violence, bearing the repercussions of a conflict they never started.