According to a report published by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), an estimated 426 million children were living in close proximity to conflict zones in 2019, and the highest number of those children [179 million] were in Africa. The fact that a significant proportion of children are getting caught up in violent conflicts around the world is a matter of grave concern and one that needs to be addressed, given the profound impact that this violence is having on children’s lives.
For years now, scholars have been writing about the adverse effects of violent conflict on children. Indeed, many scholars have demonstrated that war leads to adverse physical and psychological health outcomes in children. These health outcomes can have a lifelong effect on the wellbeing and mental health of child survivors of war.
War can have severe ramifications on the development and wellbeing of children, and it is thus imperative that we pay attention to the situation of children living in war zones, even as we grapple with the ongoing global pandemic. In this essay, I examine the case of children in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, which has been experiencing high levels of violence since November 2020, due to conflict between the Ethiopian federal government—backed by Amhara regional forces and the Eritrean army—and Tigray’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
I show that this conflict has severe consequences for children living in the region.
What We Know Already About The Impact of War on Children
Research on the Syrian conflict, for example, has shown that children exposed to the war report anxiety and depression symptoms. Furthermore, studies of Palestinian children living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have shown that these children suffer from PTSD and anxiety as a result of being exposed to traumatic war events such as sounds of artillery fire and jetfighters, shooting, bombardment and seeing graphic images of mutilated bodies on television.
In one study of children and adolescents in the Gaza Strip (2020), researchers found that children’s exposure to traumatic events resulted in PTSD. Additionally, they caused impairment symptoms in the somatic, cognitive, emotional, social and academic areas of functioning.
Aside from the psychological impact that children suffer during wartime, children are also susceptible to death, injury, disability, illness, rape, prostitution, recruitment as child soldiers, and a whole host of other problems, all of which could change the trajectory of their lives negatively.
Given these findings it is essential to understand how the Tigray conflict is impacting on children.
The Tigray Conflict
The conflict in Tigray came after months of tension between the federal government and TPLF that escalated first after the Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, disbanded the former ruling party – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front – and formed the Prosperity Party as his own political vehicle, which the TPLF refused to join. Relations deteriorated further after the government postponed general elections that were due in September because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The situation subsequently became increasingly tense and dangerous, with accusation followed by counter accusation, until a fully fledged armed conflict broke out on 3-4 November 2020. The question of who started the conflict remains controversial, with Abiy claiming that his forces were reacting to an attack by the TPLF on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) in Mekelle, and more recent reports suggesting that it was actually ENDF forces that struck first.
What should not be controversial is that the conflict in Tigray has had devastating consequences on the entire population of Tigray. Many Tigrayans have been killed in the conflict. Others have been forced to flee their homes and are now living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees in neighbouring Sudan.
Since the conflict began, children have been silent victims and witnesses to the mass atrocities committed by armed actors on all sides.
Last November, Human Rights Watch reported that Ethiopian federal troops, along with their allies, indiscriminately bombed urban areas of Tigray, including Mekelle and other remote towns using artillery rounds and airstrikes. Artillery shells struck homes, hospitals, schools, markets, business premises, infrastructure and places of worship, wounding and killing civilians, including children.
A Serious Impact on Children’s Lives
In Aksum, a town to the north of Tigray, which came under attack from both Ethiopian federal forces and Eritrean soldiers, local residents and militia appear to have fought back on 29 November by attacking Eritrean soldiers. In response, Eritrean soldiers allegedly retaliated by going on a 24-hour killing spree in which they summarily executed primarily men and boys in the town.
Human Rights Watch estimates that over 200 civilians were killed in that massacre.
Aside from these accounts of civilian deaths that include children, there have also been reports of children being severely injured in the Tigray conflict. In a recently published article, the Associated Press (AP) has reported that at least 32 children were admitted at the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle with blast injuries between last December and April this year after they got caught up in shelling in their hometown of Hawzen.
The AP also reported that 13 of the children had to have their limbs amputated. One fifteen-year-old girl admitted at the same hospital has reportedly been unable to talk or walk independently after an explosion near her home left her in a state of mental shock.
In June of 2021, armed actors continued to target areas populated by civilians and children. According to AP, an airstrike carried out on Tuesday the 22nd of June, at a busy marketplace in Togoga village in Tigray, left 51 civilians dead and more than 100 others wounded. These casualties included young children. The AP also reported that an injured baby died when an ambulance transporting the child to a hospital in Mekelle was blocked by soldiers for two hours.
The conflict has also led to children being separated from their parents or guardians. UNICEF recently reported that it has identified and registered over 6,000 unaccompanied or separated children. UNICEF also estimates that over 720,000 children have been displaced due to the fighting going on across Tigray. Furthermore, UNICEF has reported that children are among those reporting deep anxiety and distress because of the conflict.
Children are also facing hunger and severe malnutrition. According to the United Nations, an estimated 33,000 children in the region are at risk of dying as a result of a looming famine threat and inaccessibility to humanitarian aid. It is evident based on reports from aid agencies and media outlets that armed actors in Tigray have been deploying tactics that contravene international laws of war by attacking non-combatants, including children.
This is a gross violation of children’s rights as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Urgent Action is Needed
Children have every right to live in a safe environment where they are protected and cared for. The recent declaration of a ceasefire by the federal government of Ethiopia and the withdrawal of federal troops from the region is welcome news. But it has not yet led to the provision of aid and support to the children of Tigray, and so the suffering continues.
Much more needs to be done – by the government, TPLF leaders, international governments and, when possible, aid agencies – to identify and respond to the specific issues that children face. To not do this would be a humanitarian failure of epic proportions.
Dr. Sela M. Musundi is an independent gender consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya. She conducts research on the lived experiences of women and children living in war zones in East Africa.