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Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - The gunmen cold-bloodedly executed defiant children

Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - The gunmen cold-bloodedly executed defiant children
Refugees (110, IV - 1997)

1 December 1997
Deliberately targeting the young.

Youngsters have become deliberate targets in today's humanitarian conflicts "in the belief that killing a child today is to kill the enemy of tomorrow."

When suspected Hutu militants attacked a rural Rwandan school last year, they told the children to separate themselves according to their ethnicity. When the youngsters refused, the gunmen cold-bloodedly killed 17 children and their teacher, a Belgian nun.

As one group of refugees fleeing the fighting which engulfed Zaire last year approached the town of Shabunda they "took their children and threw them off the bridge. People preferred to kill their families themselves, throwing them into the river or onto the rocks below the bridge, rather than see them killed by the soldiers," one eyewitness news report said at the time.

Unidentified gunmen attacked a paediatric hospital in Lwiro in the then Zaire, beat and shot hospital staff and forcibly removed 28 sick and malnourished refugee children. Following international pressure, the children were released four days later, but during their imprisonment they had been held in a container, beaten and tortured and children above the age of five were deliberately starved and refused water.

More refugees died, from disease, malnutrition or execution, than in any humanitarian crisis since World War Two. The final toll will never be accurately known, but will be in the tens of thousands. Many of the victims were children. Increasingly, not only in the Great Lakes, but in emergencies around the globe, children are becoming not only 'accidental' victims of refugee movements, but deliberate targets.

"There is no doubt that in today's conflicts, children are targets - not just incidental victims - in the belief that killing a child today is to kill the enemy of tomorrow," says Graca Machel who compiled a special study for the U.N. Secretary General called Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.

The 'child problem' was so great in Central Africa that most humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, mobilized huge resources to bolster traditional organizations such as UNICEF and ICRC in tackling the issue. And despite the widespread deaths and sufferings, there were remarkable success stories in caring for youngsters who had become separated and in tracing and reuniting more than 51,000 unaccompanied children with their families.

Protection officer Ann-Sofie Nedlund remembers a "million to one chance" when she helped reunite a husband with his wife and baby son whom, he believed, had been slaughtered in a massacre five months earlier and 2,000 kilometres deeper in the Central African rainforests. Ten-year-old Jean-Pierre was reunited with his family under a special programme to assist and rehabilitate youths associated with the former military, two years after he had fled with retreating Rwandan soldiers during the original genocide. And nine-year-old Jean Ukuvkiyimfura was reunited with his family in a Goma camp after his father heard his name being read out over a loudspeaker as he queued for his weekly food ration.

Encouraging as those happy reunions were, the Machel report said,"It is unforgivable that children are assaulted, violated, murdered and yet our conscience is not revolted nor our sense of dignity challenged. The impact of armed conflict on children must be everyone's concern and is everyone's responsibility."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)