Do You Hear Their Voices?
It is said that “history repeats itself.” We often see examples of repeated mistakes, especially in wars and armed conflicts. Over the past decade, new conflicts have erupted in places such as Syria, South Sudan, DR Congo and Rakhine State, Myanmar and are yet to cease. And though we frequently see images of desperate families fleeing home on the media, the world does not seem to care much about their situation.
The global refugee population has reached 22.5 million, with half the number representing children under 18. Transitioning from a life of peace and stability to one of displacement and uncertainty, these children experience life altering situations we can hardly imagine. I think of my visit in 2015 to Jordan, where I met Samar and her family, who had fled Syria with her five children. As she was unemployed, her family could only survive on relief aid. She told me that her children, all of whom looked very skinny to me, had not eaten any meat for two months. At that moment, I was deeply moved and realised the impact of hunger and conflict on the lives of children.
We have always believed that it is the basic right of every human to have enough to eat. Over the past decade, the global hungry population had been in decline thanks to the efforts of various countries and stakeholders. Unfortunately, due to armed conflict and climate change, the number of undernourished people in the world has increased from 777 million in 2015 to an estimated 815 million in 2016, with 489 million living in countries affected by conflict, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations’ latest publication, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017. In other words, behind the issue of hunger lie various forms of violence and threats, including armed conflict, poverty and climate change, which limit families from providing sufficient food for their children, thus placing their children’s lives at risk.
Children who live in contexts of violence and conflict are more vulnerable to the issue of hunger, as conflict is often a major cause of chronic food crisis and famine. In regions where conflict persists, hunger and malnutrition also tend to be more serious. In 2016 alone, the effects of violent conflict and civil insecurity forced over 63 million people in 13 countries to suffer severe levels of acute food insecurity and require urgent humanitarian assistance. If a conflict-affected region is further affected by climate change, the impact of the food crisis can only get even worse. Hunger and displacement are not things that we would like ourselves and our children to experience, but perhaps we can, at least, learn more about these experiences and show our concern for those affected.
Sitting under a tent made of bamboo and black polythene, Salma holds her child, eight-month-old Zara, on her lap. It is noon and droplets of sweat drip from her face. Though they are safe in Bangladesh, Salma is concerned. She says, “My child is suffering from diarrhoea since two days ago. She has eaten nothing except for drinking breast milk. How can I produce enough breast milk for my daughter, when I have survived the last month only on survival packages? In my village in Myanmar, I had access to milk, green vegetables and fish. The food strengthened my body to produce enough milk to help my children grow,” she says.
Witnessing war and death
“The day we left I saw things I had never seen. Houses were burning. As we ran I saw bodies. They were everywhere; some in the pond, some in the canal and some on the road. I was scared and trembled in fear. On the journey here all our relatives were separated. They are now in different camps,” she recalls.
An unbalanced diet
“In my dreams I saw people running, crying, shouting and fighting and suddenly I woke up in fear,” says 11-year old Somsida, who currently lives in a refugee camp in Bangladesh with her family. Her two uncles were killed in the violence that erupted in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
Somsida is deprived of access to basic nutritious food. “In my house I used to eat rice and fish. I liked it. I used to eat different kinds of fish … [but] it has been a month since I have eaten rice and fish. [Here] we can only afford to eat flattened rice and jaggery. We eat the same stuff every day.”
Appalling hygiene conditions
“We are sleeping on the ground with our little children. The black polythene tent produces a lot of heat. Our children are facing skin diseases and sometimes vomit. Besides these issues, we don’t have bathing places for women. We use wet towels to clean ourselves inside the tent.” Jamira says while holding her child.
Orphaned with a future in doubt
For 8-year-old Kayes, 6-year-old Rasheda and 4-year-old Roshni, life has changed in an instant. Both of their parents were killed during the violence that erupted in Rakhine State, Myanmar. They had two loving parents who took care of all their needs. Though the three of them managed to escape to Bangladesh and are living with a relative in a refugee camp, the loss of their parents has been very painful for them.
The indelible pain of losing 3 children in an instant
The boat was half an hour away from reaching the shores of Bangladesh, when a storm came and swept away Almarzan’s three children in the dead of night. When morning dawned and the sea calmed down, 7-year-old Shohidullah, 5-year-old Khusru, and 4-year-old Shamsun Nahar were nowhere to be found. For Almarzan, it was like time had stood still. In just an instant, the mother of five lost three of her children, and the pain of such a huge loss will take a long time to heal.
After Razia and her children had reached Bangladesh from Myanmar, she thought they were finally safe, but then one of her children was almost kidnapped. “There are no permanent walls on the sides of the tent. On one side it is completely open. The shelter walls are so thin that anyone can rip it open. That night, it was dark, only the moon radiated some light. We were all asleep. I kept the little one in the middle and the elder children slept on the sides. A man entered our tent and tried to take my 4-year-old daughter Fiza.”
Ever since that incident Razia feels unsafe and fears for the safety of her children. She has reinforced the plastic sheets with a mesh made of thin wooden sticks and added a thorny fence on the sides of the tent to protect her children from intruders.
*Some of the names have been changed.
A young nation hit by war
The conflict that broke out, last August, in Rakhine, Myanmar has caused over 600,000 people to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. Most have lost everything and are surviving only on relief aid until that unknown day when they can return home. The Syrian civil war will enterhave reached its eighth year this March, with about 5.4 million Syrians having fled their homes for neighbouring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Some refugee children have yet to live a day in peace since birth. And in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country which only gained its independence in 2011, with two-thirds of the population under the age of 30, it was a nation full of vibrancy and promise. Unfortunately, peace was short-lived. Two years after independence, civil war erupted which, to date, has been going on for more than four years.
South Sudanese children born during the conflict have been living a life of displacement. Over 4 million people have lost their homes due to the war. 2 million have been internally displaced, while many have fled to other countries. Uganda alone has taken in over 1 million South Sudanese refugees, but as conflict intensifies in Upper Nile and Central Equatoria, it is expected that Uganda and other bordering countries will experience a new influx of refugees, which will place local communities under enormous pressure. If the current situation persists, about 5.1 million people inside South Sudan will likely experience food crisis to catastrophic levels, which means that hunger and malnutrition are posing an unprecedented threat to the South Sudanese people.
At the same time, the paralysed economy has also inflated prices. The World Bank pointed out that South Sudan’s annual inflation increased by 730% from August 2015 to August 2016, implying that millions of South Sudanese have to depend on emergency food assistance to survive. Inflation is particularly serious in cities. For example, in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, the price of staple food sorghum rose 6 times from 2016 to 2017, making life even more difficult for many.
As mentioned above, if areas of conflict are further impacted by climate change, food crises are likely to aggravate. Due to a civil war and natural disasters, such as drought and flooding, famine was declared in two counties of Unity State in February 2017. Though the area is no longer in famine, food shortage remains a very pressing issue in the country.