“My sister and her three children, who have been living in Kobo, a town in Amhara regional state, are now in Addis Ababa. They came here 12 days ago fearing the conflict would escalate,“ says Ahmed Kedir.
“When I look at them, tears come to my eyes. The sadness and confusion they carry with them have made the whole family stressed,” he added.
According to Ahmed, his nephew and nieces, one boy and two girls are just 8, 10, and 13 years old respectively.
The bullet sounds they heard at Kobo have haunted them for days. The loss they have experienced after their uncle’s death sees them cry out late at night. Despite everything they struggle to really understand what is going on. “My nephew and nieces are still not free from this confusion,” says Ahmed. “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. There is no guarantee that their school friends and neighbors who are still in Kobo will survive. How can we explain this to them?”, he asks.
These are not the only children who are suffering due to conflict in Ethiopia. According to UNICEF, more than 2 million young people were displaced across various parts of Ethiopia between January and June.
Conflict tears apart economies, destroy the land and ruins relations. But besides that, the psychological effects it has on children are long-lasting and horrific.
The ongoing conflict in the region of Tigray is hard to explain to children. What most of their experience is fear and confusion.
“Children who survive war grow up with the inherent stress of living in a war zone, and most experience severe psychological repercussions later in life,” says a UNICEF document.
Children in combat experience the greatest hardships of humanity from a young age. A 2013 study by Louis Brunette looked into the experiences of children in Africa by the age of 15. Some 54 percent had horrifically been forced to kill someone, 28 percent had been raped and between 80 to 90 percent had seen someone killed or being beaten.
Dr. Dawit Wondimagegn, psychiatrist and director of Addis Ababa University health science college, said: “Children on the sidelines of a war zone face trauma where many children are orphaned or lose at least one parent when displaced,” he said.
He also asserts that being separated from a parent was one of the most stressful experiences for war and conflict-affected children.“Since young children rely on their families for protection and to cope, a physically divided family can leave a child feeling afraid and hopeless. The loss of a parent can result in fewer resources like food, water, and shelter, which prevents a child from growing up in a safe and healthy environment.” Dawit told Addis Zeybe.
Beza Kibret, Psychologist and Project officer of Hope for Justice, says: “The physical, sexual and emotional violence to which these children are exposed shatters their world. War undermines the very foundations of children’s lives, destroying their homes, splintering their communities, and breaking down their trust in adults.”Hope for Justice works with children that are separated from their home due to war, conflict, divorce, and hunger.
According to the organization, the psychological damage will leave children carrying the burden of their war-torn childhoods for the rest of their lives.
Beza also explained that children suffer in more ways than PTSD and depression. For example, children that come face-to-face with armed conflict often feed off the hostility around them and become violent and aggressive.
“This is putting young people at risk for continuing cycles of violence, War-exposed children often imitate the violence they have seen while playing games and solve personal conflicts with aggression,” she says.
Dr. Dawit adds: “One of the greatest effects I see on a day-to-day basis due to the country's current status is a loss of hope. Once young people feel hopeless, they really do give up. They don’t take steps that might build a constructive future. And I would say certainly this will be exemplified by the children that are living in the conflict areas.”.
On top of this, children who are exposed to war at a young age are often afraid and more prone to panic attacks, anxiety disorders, bedwetting, and nightmares.
“Some become frozen with fear at the mere sound of a bullet blade or war jets,” adds Dawit. Daily life in a war zone leaves these children afraid for their lives even after they have left.
War is a confusing incident for these children, but there are ways to help them handle the stress. It is crucial to war-affected children’s emotional health that child psychology specialists are included in the humanitarian efforts to provide aid to war-torn populations.
“It is necessary to intervene to protect children and prevent the aggravation of these mental and emotional problems they experience to not be affected in the future. This is why parents and psychologists should do their best to support children as much as possible,” says Dereje Girma, a country director of Hope for Justice.
Dr. Dawit says: “The government should reform the humanitarian aid system to respond to psychological damage of children by facilitating for international aid to give emotional assistance to the young victims of war in addition to the food and medicine it currently provides. Otherwise, there will continue to be a large number of aggressive and traumatized children with nowhere to turn.”