Violence redefines Mideast childhood

July 23, 2006|By RON HOLLANDER | RON HOLLANDER,SUN REPORTER

In northern Israel, a shining-faced little girl with her curly hair in pigtails writes not on a customary blackboard, nor in a school notebook, but on the lethally armored nose of a heavy artillery shell.

Her half-smile gives little clue to her message. What does a 12-year-old write on something that she knows is intended to blow someone to smithereens?

Not far away as the rocket flies, in south Lebanon, the children are in school. But the blackboard is sullied with chalk drawings of bombers smashing apartments, while an Iranian-made Raad-2 155 mm shell flies toward the planes.

Clearly authoritative, cockily confident, a boy is lecturing his rapt classmates on the new logistics of life.

At least 335 people - including some children -have died in Lebanon and Israel since fighting began July 12. No one knows how many are wounded. More than 500,000 Lebanese are fleeing north. The upheaval, and the growing scarcity of food, water, and medicine, add to the trauma inflicted by bombs and rockets, especially for children.

On Wednesday in Nazareth - Israel's largest Arab city - two Israeli Arab brothers, 3 and 8, died in the street in front of their uncle's house when they were killed by Hezbollah rockets.

This is childhood turned upside down. When the soccer balls and dolls and stuffed animals return, as return they must, will the children recover?

Children have always been victims of war, sometimes intentionally. In the Holocaust, 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered. But those who survived, and who are surviving today in the Middle East, may still be counted as victims.

Short-term traumas are inevitable. Bad dreams, clinging to parents, regressing in behavior, mistrustfulness of the world are all consequences of childhood exposure to war. But the good news is that when artillery shells are no longer used as blackboards, childhood often returns.

"War is in your bones, but it doesn't have to be determinative," said Ann Weiss, a Holocaust author and analyst with the Transcending Trauma project at the University of Pennsylvania. "My belief is that the imprint of war on children's souls will also create in them an even deeper commitment to peace."

A portfolio of photos of children caught up in the current conflict can be viewed at www.baltimoresun.com/children.

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