Page last updated at 11:43 GMT, Saturday, 24 January 2009

The childhoods blighted by war

Half of the people of Gaza, who weathered a three-week Israeli offensive this month, are children. Natalia Antelava, who grew up in the middle of a war, asks what scars the violence will have left on the young people who witnessed it.

Lara's mother, sister and four brothers were killed by a rocket attack

The interview was going badly wrong. Lara sat, serious and shy, on a tall chair in the centre of the living room and I simply could not bring myself to ask the right questions.

How do you talk to an eight-year-old about a rocket attack that killed her mother, her sister and her four brothers?

This was the first time I had met Lara, but I had seen her face before.

In 2006, when Israel and the militant group Hezbollah fought a devastating war here, Lara's picture made it to the pages of international newspapers.

Screaming child

It showed a howling six-year-old, her hair a mess of black curls. The shot was taken at the funeral of Lara's mother.

She was killed, along with 18 other family members, when Israeli rockets hit their pick-up truck, Lara was one of the three survivors.

Two-and-a-half years on, we tracked down what was left of Lara's family in the south of the country. As we sipped bitter black coffee, photographs of those family members who had died stared down from the wall.

Lara's aunt, Zeinab, wept as she told me how Lara emerged screaming from the rubble covered in her mother's blood.

"I will never forget what happened," Zeinab said. "But for Lara it is easier. She is a child, soon she will not remember."

Normality of war

But Dr Mirna Canagge, a child psychologist working in Beirut, says Lara will never forget.


Dr Canagge has worked with hundreds of children who have been through similar experiences in southern Lebanon and says all of them need someone they can talk to about the experience, otherwise it may haunt them throughout their lives.

This is true for Rani, a 22-year-old Palestinian student in Beirut who still remembers vividly how his best friend was shot, in front of him, by an Israeli bullet in Ramallah.

For Rani, childhood and war are inseparable, but the help of a therapist is a luxury he associates with the West.

"When you are a kid and all you see are bombs and death you think of them as normal," Rani told me.

I knew what he meant, I myself grew up amid the chaos of a civil war in post-Soviet Georgia, but it was only much later in life that I digested my childhood experiences, realising the full horror of the situation we were sometimes in.

Back then, my friends and I simply got on with life.

Brave in adversity

Just like the adults, we hid from the bullets and saw loved ones die.

We were, just like the grown-ups, at times sad and at times scared. But unlike them, we did not have to worry.

Frequently I have been moved, amazed and puzzled by how composed and brave children can be in the face of the worst adversity.

We had our parents to protect us from the scary world outside, and that, I realise now, made the war much less stressful and often much less frightening.

Many psychologists believe that often the hardest thing for children to deal with is not the conflict itself but the anxiety it causes in their parents.

Death of a family member is, of course, harder still.

And yet, frequently I have been moved, amazed and puzzled by how composed and brave children can be in the face of the worst adversity.

Bloated corpses

Time and again, I tried to image what could be going through their minds as they learned how to face the world on their own.

Lara did talk in the end. Calmly she told me that straight away she knew that her mum and everyone else around her was dead.

And as she quietly described the carnage, I thought of Ziousu a 13-year-old I met in Burma.

Georgian woman during the summer conflict with Russia 2008
Children can find their parents' trauma harder to deal with than war

He lost his entire family in a cyclone which hit the Irrawaddy delta last May.

Three days after everyone he loved had died he sat next to me on a boat, looking at the swollen bodies floating in the water.

He was calm and composed and when we arrived at our destination he jumped off first and stretched out his hand to help me off.

Mother's death

Back in Georgia last August there was Dito, a six-year-old boy whose house was shelled by the Russian forces.

I met him in a hospital where he showed me the stitches that covered his back and told me about the attack.

He smiled only once when he said he needed to get out of the hospital because his mum was about to give birth and he wanted to be home for when she returned with the baby.

He was sure, he said, it would be a boy. As I left, his aunt followed me into the corridor, where she broke down in tears. "He does not know yet," she said, "but his parents are dead."

Dito, Ziousu, Lara and now thousands of children in Gaza will each cope differently with experiences that will shape the rest of their lives, experiences that most of us cannot even begin to imagine.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 24 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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