Children pay for adults' vengeance

Q&A

December 29, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

Anywhere civil war or ethnic conflict breaks out, Dr. Carl E. Taylor says, the first victims are usually children.

Dr. Taylor, 76, an expert in medicine in the developing world, is professor-emeritus with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a senior adviser to the United Nations Children's Fund.

The founder of Hopkins' Department of International Health, Dr. Taylor led UNICEF's efforts in the 1980s to help China's government replace Chairman Mao Tse-tung's famous cadres of barefoot doctors," wiped out by economic reforms, with a system of village doctors.

He helped set up a disease-immunization program that reached 90 percent of that nation's children.

He spent August in Bosnia for UNICEF, studying the psychological impact of the war on youngsters there.

Next month, he will be in Kazakhstan for a conference on pneumonia among children in the former Soviet Republic.

QUESTION: What was the condition of children in Bosnia?

ANSWER: People are out to get vengeance on each other. One of the best ways of getting vengeance on someone who you think has damaged you is through their children, to hurt their women. UNICEF indicates that 80 percent of the victims in these civil conflicts are women and children.

I saw whole rooms filled with kids who had just seen their parents tortured and killed.

Along with the starvation, the cold, the pneumonia and the physical suffering, one of the things we haven't heard much about is the psychological trauma that the children -- particularly in Bosnia -- are having.

That was one of the things I was working on particularly. We were screening children for PTSD.

Q.: PTSD?

A.: Post-traumatic stress disorder. It's the major psychological damage that comes with violence. This is something that was first defined among soldiers involved in the Vietnam experience. Now it's found to be much more of a problem among children in areas of conflict.

Q.: What are the symptoms?

.5l A.: One is withdrawal. They're so fearful that they just can't communicate. They will sit in a corner, they will crawl under tables and just hide.

Another is aggression. They constantly get into fights.

Another is to get into a pattern of behavior where there is total unpredictability as to what they're going to do.

Probably the most important one is a total apathy, where they lose their ability to feel and to participate and learn. This is the ultimate withdrawal.

It's reflected in all sorts of things like nightmares, where they wake up screaming. Bed-wetting. The whole process.

Q.: Did many Bosnian children suffer from this?

A.: These kids, in some areas, were universally going through extreme forms of PTSD.

The problem with it is that if it's not taken care of it's like a cancer that develops in the psyche. And it will permeate the whole future of these children.

We found that parents and adults normally treat these children precisely wrong. They tell the child, "Don't talk about it," or "Stop worrying, that's over. Let's look to the future."

That's the worst thing you can do. The best thing is to let them get it out, to encourage them to role-play, to talk about it, to deal with it through counseling.

But these children hear adults talking about the enemy. That transforms the terror into hatred. And that is built into the child as a total psychological response.

Therefore, you have a framework that can be exploited later on by manipulative leaders.

Exactly the way [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic is manipulating the people, raising fears that they first experienced when they were children being persecuted by the Croats during World War II.

The Middle East is the best example of this cyclic phenomenon. We've raised a whole generation in the Palestinian camps. They have only one obsession. [They believe] that their future

depends on them being able to get even. That's

where you get this generational violence and vengeance.

Q.: Were you surprised by anything you saw in Bosnia?

A.: The intensity of the hatred, and the psychological trauma to children. That gripped me in a way that I had not anticipated.

It was particularly bad because these were very cultured and presumably civilized people doing it to their neighbors' children.

Q.: What's UNICEF trying to do for Bosnian children?

A.: The first thing is get relief in, obviously. Blankets and warm clothes. The buildings are totally open to the cold and the winter, with no heating fuels and so on. Then there's the acute medical care and food.

I remember going into a town where we were the second group that had gotten in in a period of six months. They were in a desperate situation for food -- real acute malnutrition that you could see walking around the hospitals, particularly the children.

Q.: UNICEF said earlier in December that by spending $25 billion a year, the world could meet the basic health, nutrition and educational needs of children everywhere. How can that be done in places like Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq, where the government or the lack of any government stands in the way?

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