A generation of war: the youth of Lebanon

By Maha Broum | 1994-05-01 12:00:00

Lara is a young woman whose parents were killed in the war. Her brother became a militiaman and she married one of his friends, who abused her and who was later killed in battle. Fighting forced her to move from one place to another, living in shelters and sometimes selling her body to survive and buy food. She has no education and nowhere to go.

Sana was a 15-year-old girl when she committed suicide. She was born in war and grew up thinking that it was endless. She and her family were forced to move, first from their village and many times later from their refuge. She felt that life was not worth living.

Jamal is a young man who has seen destruction and killing. He was fighting with one militia when a bomb fell and exploded, tearing three of his friends into pieces. Two months later, a ceasefire prevailed and he saw his militia leader embracing the leader of the "enemy." He does not understand why he and his friends were fighting when everything could have been solved peace-fully and saved lives. He has no skills to earn a living and is now addicted to drugs. To get money for his addiction he steals. Recently he was convicted of killing a man while trying to steal his car.

These are only three experiences the children of Lebanon have gone through. Even though the United Nations announced its Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 as a commitment to a humane and civilized existence, and the Geneva Convention guaranteed the protection of civilians in times of war, the principle of civilian immunity does not exist in practice, and civilians have always suffered. This is true in such cases as Vietnam, Hiroshima, Beirut, and Sarajevo. Among civilians, the most vulnerable groups are children and adolescents, who are keen to know all that goes on around them. They do not miss out on the excitement and they are the ones who mostly need safety and security. Death and wounds happen at random and as a result children question the trustworthiness of their parents and adults.

In war zones, innocent people die in pain before the eyes of their family. Population moves in great droves, which results in social and housing problems. Blockades, slow starvation, and deliberate attacks on civilians are common war processes-as ancient as warfare itself. Since children often have no idea what a weapon is, they play with it, with tragic results.

The family breaks and the damage to it cannot be shown in cold statistics. Instead, we must think of confused human beings in trouble. In the absence of government control, inflation and unemployment grow and de-stroy adolescents' dreams and aspirations.

The Lebanese children have witnessed war raids, car explosions, and shelling and have seen their houses destroyed. They have slept in basements, hallways, or stair-wells; about 150,000 Lebanese children have lost their parents, who were killed in a savage manner. They were forced to flee with their families to safer places and were not allowed to play outdoors for fear of shelling. That charged the atmosphere indoors with tension, and increased violence among kids.

How Children Cope

How have these experiences affected the psychological life of the individual child? How much have the Lebanese children understood what was going on? How much anxiety was aroused, and what normal and abnormal outlets would a child find to deal with these experiences?

Children found outlets for their feelings toward war in two ways. The first was through war games. Lebanese children learned the meaning of air raids and that houses fall down. They understood that people can die in fallen houses. They understood the significance of taking shelter and could judge the safety of various shelters. Children built imaginary houses that were "bombed." They built real shelters out of anything, instead of what other children would call "playing house." Another outlet for children was withdrawing within themselves and regressing in social development. Some forms of regression were bedwetting, thumb-sucking, greed, or aggression.

Adolescents Adapt to War

Many adolescents grew up without parental supervision and discipline and were involved directly in fighting. They acquired, in extreme degrees, such traits as sexual escape, rebellion, boredom, intoxication, and an ethic that justified killing. The experience of killing created in some fighters a sense of guilt, which was repressed but expressed as heightened irritability or anxiety. Death lost its mystery and strangeness and nothing seemed to be quite worthwhile after such experiences. The experience of death and destruction during the war fostered a strong impulse to enjoy life while still alive. Distraction was the inevitable reaction to years of horror and danger.

Lebanese adolescents no longer respected their elders. A breakdown of parental prestige and a new kind of separation between generations emerged. The linking of the older generation with the catastrophic blunder of war made it necessary for adolescents to reject what the older generation taught. Their normal rebellion against old-fashioned parents and teachers received rational reinforcement because the older generation had obviously and miserably failed. Anna Freud analyzed the experience in this way: "The child learns that the whole adult world, including these same parents and teachers, has unleashed aggression on a terrifying scale. Hence the normal formation of the superego does not take place. The child has a vague sense of having been let down and this focuses later in all manner of charges of hypocrisy against the older generation." Adolescents also were losing the moral standards of the pre-war world and delinquency appeared to be increasing. They often expressed a protest against traditional religious forms and wanted to discuss all beliefs, accepting none merely on authority. As a result of death and horror, the Lebanese adolescent had a spirit of recklessness. Basic among their social attitudes was an assertion of independence and a zest for experimentation to work out something better than the models offered by the past.

In education, adolescents demanded an educational system that would prepare them for a complicated, complex future of new technology and international markets, and for a peaceful world. They felt that war had deprived them of their right to an opportunity for a better future.

Swearing became part of life in militias and armies, and smoking and drugs were available for diversion or consolation. Bootlegging was the most promising way to get high, and neighborhood gangs were allied with "rings" of big business. This was dangerous for this generation because it offered them deceptive opportunities to earn a living.

Can we help?

Real horror during a war is always harsher and more traumatic than words can express. The best we can do to help will be very little. We have no accurate statistics about the casualties, emotional and psychological injuries, but they are certainly high.

During the war, Lebanon caught the attention of the world community for quite some time. However, only a few international organizations have come to the rescue. At the local level, and until very recently, the government has been unable to assume its role in rebuilding the country. Most of the local relief aid came through private, religious and missionary groups.

One impressive international aid process has been under-taken by a Swiss organization (SOS) that is looking after a number of Lebanese orphans. This SOS organization has built two model villages for orphans: one in the northern part of Lebanon (Bhersaf) and the other in the southern part (Sfarei). In each village about 12 Western style houses are built. Each house has five or six small bedrooms, each bedroom shared by two children, and a separate bedroom for a single middle-aged woman who plays the role of a mother and is paid nominally for her work (besides her room and board). In the morning, the children go by bus to a public school and return "home" in the afternoon to find that their "mother" has done the house chores, cooked their food and is ready to listen to their stories and help them with their studies. On the weekend, the "mother" has time off to go and visit her family and in her place comes an "aunt." Often the "mother" takes the kids with her to visit her family. In the village there is one "father" for all the kids, who takes care of the children's and homes' material needs (shopping and fixing things). The village is landscaped in a beautiful and refreshing way, with playgrounds that are unavailable in the city. Children are given a real sense of family. Unfortunately, these two villages can accommodate no more than 200 children.

Some orphans have a chance to grow up in institutions similar to boarding schools. These institutions are usually religious and their capacity is limited.

Special attention is required by handicapped children who have lost a limb or sense organ as a result of war. During the war some Western governments helped a few of these children get treatment abroad. It is urgent for more Lebanese handicapped children to receive home treatment. The handicapped also need to be accepted in their traditional communities, which look down on them. They need special classes and schools to learn the skills required for earning a living. One plan that may help this group gain hope and courage is to twin them with handicapped children in the Western world who have overcome their disabilities.

Lebanese children are not all orphans or handicapped but they are depressed and traumatized. They may look normal but in fact they lack enough attention and opportunities to trust themselves, their community, or life in general. To achieve this, psychological counselling, community work, and skill training need to be introduced in schools. Restlessness, uneasiness, disappointment, and cynicism, which affect a number of adolescents, need to be replaced by understanding and guidance. Besides, the best ideas of various organizations (Scouts, Y's, and Red Cross) should be introduced to redirect the young people's energies, enthusiasm, and devotion toward useful community work. These community activities allow the adolescents to share happiness and acquire self-esteem and trust. Camps within or outside the country will give them a chance to have fun, distract them from memories of war experiences, and let them live peacefully. In this regard, UNICEF has sponsored a number of successful "peace camps" in Lebanon in the last few years. In addition, more recreational facilities, such as playgrounds and community centres, should be created.

Educators and parents have to see that their work cannot go on as if nothing unusual had happened. Studies of many kinds should be planned so that school and community life are more meaningful. What this generation of war needs most is for their lives to have meaning.

Maha Brown, a Lebanese, has a doctorate in peace education from the University of Pittsburgh.

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1994

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1994, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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