Children: victims in a war not of their making

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

A Report just issued by the charitable organisation Save the Children, which draws upon research evidence from several reputable international agencies, highlights the devastation caused by the current conflict in Syria. The report, titled, The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future, documents the disaster for children caused by the appalling conflict that has been a regular feature of news programmes on our television schools for the past four years. It makes for harrowing reading and says much about the lack of care given to protect the innocent during times of conflict.

The report states that before the start of the war, the majority of Syria’s children were enrolled in primary school, and there was a significant commitment to education on the part of the government and families. Literacy rates at this time were at 95% for 15–24-year-olds. Today, almost 3 million children are out of school and the country has one of the lowest enrolment rates in the world. The example of the city of Aleppo is given where the enrolment rate is shockingly low at around 6%. Furthermore, half of the Syrian children currently in refugee camps are not receiving formal access to school. The report estimates that the cost of replacing damaged, destroyed or occupied schools and lost equipment could be as high as £2 billion ($3 billion). Many of the country’s teachers have been killed or are directly involved in the conflict, and even if peace returns soon, it will take many years to restore education provision to more than a minimal level within Syria. The danger is that there will be a lost generation who have not had the benefit of formal schooling.

Syria is a nation renowned for its literature. I recently read Rafik Schami’s excellent and moving novel The Dark Side of Love, and I similarly enjoyed Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family by Hanna Mina. These writers are articulate and educated individuals who drew attention to Syria for the most noble of reasons. They represent a rich and proud artistic heritage and provide insights into the emotions and passions of an educated and cultured Syrian people. One wonders from where the next generation of Syrian writers, artists, scientists and engineers may emerge. Probably not from a land where the infrastructure, and in many instances the will of the people has been so clearly destroyed.

All sides in the Syrian conflict make claims about fighting for justice and freedom, yet what they have currently caused is chaos and hatred. In the midst of all this, as in all conflicts, there are children who are powerless to effect change, who are denied an opportunity to receive even the most basic education. If as the United States senator Hiram W. Johnson, stated in 1918, “the first casualty of war is truth,” then the second is surely those women and children who will be expected to rebuild families and homes when the conflict is over.

The Syrian writer Maram al-Massri sums this up well in her poem Women like me, where she describes the disenfranchised nature of the innocents amidst conflict.


Women like me

do not know how to speak.

A word remains in their throats

like a thorn

they choose to swallow.

Women like me

know nothing except weeping,

impossible weeping



like a severed artery.

Women like me

receive blows

and do not dare return them.

They shake with anger,

they subdue it.

Like lions in cages,

women like me

dream . . .

of freedom . . .

Maram al-Massri


The Save the Children Report: The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future can be found at: Save The Children 2015


Thank goodness for the honest language of children!

Spemser Turner, and eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Spenser Turner, an eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Driving into the university this morning I was listening to the radio, a regular routine that keeps me abreast of the news, when a report came on featuring a ten year old schoolboy from Newcastle in the north east of England. Spencer Turner who attends Farne Primary School was being interviewed at the National Arboretum located in Staffordshire in the centre of the country.

The National Arboretum is a focus of memorial for people who have given their lives in service of the country. Fifty thousand trees and a number of commissioned memorials represent not only military personnel, but also those working for the police and emergency services or involved in rescue or support services overseas, who have lost their lives doing their duty. This memorial landscape attracts visitors from around the world, and provides a centre for contemplation and an opportunity for people who wish to pay their respects to those who have died, both known and unknown.

Across Europe this year there have been many events organised to commemorate 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War. Today at the National Arboretum, Prince William will unveil the latest memorial which will recall a significant event during that terrible time. At Christmas 1914, English and German soldiers who had been facing each other from their trenches across a battlefield, put down their arms, declared a truce and crossed into “no-man’s land” to exchange gifts. In the midst of this temporary cessation of hostilities, a number of the soldiers from opposing armies produced a football and proceeded to enjoy a spontaneous game. This event has been variously reported in newspapers and history books and through theatrical and media productions over the intervening years, but particularly this year at the centenary of the event.

As a permanent means to commemorate this makeshift football match, the Football Association and the British Council organised a competition for school children to design an appropriate memorial to be located at the National Arboretum. Children up to the age of sixteen were invited to submit their designs and there was a huge response. Ten year old Spencer Turner, who featured on the radio this morning, won this competition and along with others from his school will be present at its unveiling today.

This in itself is a touching story of enabling children to participate in a practical way in commemorating the tragedy of a dreadful war. But rather than the event, it was the interview with young Spencer that I found most moving this morning. To their great credit, the Today Programme, a daily news magazine on BBC Radio 4 gave Spenser time to explain his inspiration for the design and to express his feelings about the finished bronze sculpture and his involvement in the day.

Spenser through his articulate and straightforward account of his experiences and emotions painted a vivid picture of what this day means to him. He described how he started with a design featuring a footballer with a ball, but then realised that most of the children entering this competition would be making similar images. Eventually he opted to produce a drawing that shows English and German hands, clasped in friendship within the cage of a ball. This he stated represented these two groups of men coming together through an image of peace that shows that you “can actually stop war.” Having won the competition he says he was shocked and proud, but it was evident from his interview on this morning’s programme that he was also moved by what the memorial that he has designed represents. He talked about knowing little about the First World War until a pack of information arrived in school. From this he had clearly learned much and this shaped his work for the competition.

There are always dangers that commemorations of war can become jingoistic or simply a token gesture which has impact for a short time, and is then forgotten. I am quite sure that in this instance Spencer Turner and many other school children who entered this competition will have learned much about the horror and futility of war. I also hope that the many thousands of people who listened to Spenser on the radio this morning will have noted the eloquence with which he expressed his ideas and the reasoning behind his process of design.

Coming at the end of a week in which the news has been dominated by the extent of the brutality that has become a feature of modern warfare, and in particular the inhumane means of interrogation used to extract information from prisoners, it is opportune to reflect upon different perspectives of war that were reported on this morning’s news. In particular I feel we should stop for a while to consider the contrasting straightforward and honest expressions used by a ten year old school boy who was obviously moved and thoughtful about what he had learned, with those mischievous terms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “coercive methods,” used by adults in positions of power as a denial of torture, which were heard in an earlier news item.

It is only fitting that we should remember the suffering endured by servicemen and civilians during times of war. But it is to be hoped that we can learn lessons from children like Spenser that may govern the ways in which we behave in the future.



Suffer the little children

"Everyone, in theory subscribes to an international consensus that schools have only civilian and not military uses." - Gordon Brown. What will it take to move from theory to reality?

“Everyone, in theory subscribes to an international consensus that schools have only civilian and not military uses.” – Gordon Brown.
What will it take to move from theory to reality?

In yesterday’s Guardian newspaper (Monday 28th July 2014) former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote an article under the title Schools on the Frontline. Gordon Brown has always seemed to me to be a man with a strong social conscience. He has often spoken out and indeed chastised government bodies and other organisations on issues of poverty and has been a great supporter of humanitarian causes in Africa. Sadly, in an age of politics that is obsessed with image rather than substance, he was given a rough ride by the media in his role, as the Prime Minister who immediately followed Tony Blair, who by contrast didn’t lack charisma, despite having limited appeal in terms of either his intellectual capital or moral judgement. Perhaps Gordon Brown is a man out of time, but he has never been slow to stand up for those who are oppressed or on behalf of others fighting injustice.

In his eloquent piece in yesterday’s Guardian, Gordon Brown makes an impassioned plea for nations around the world to establish more rigorous guidelines and to take actions for the protection of children and schools in areas of conflict. Clearly disturbed, as many of us have been, by the horrific scenes of children killed or maimed, having taken shelter in what should have been the safe haven of schools in Gaza, Brown constructs an even-handed case for a cessation of the inhumane treatment of children in this devastated war zone. Making clear his view that both the Israeli government and the leaders of Hamas are complicit in this ever worsening war crime, he draws our attention to the irony that exists around the fact that this is the twenty fifth anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that was enacted to ensure that the vulnerability of childhood was both recognised and protected.

In the Guardian article, the former Prime Minister cites the bombing of the United Nations school in Beit Hanoun in which women, children and neutral UN staff were killed, as an indication of the lack of moral judgement that surrounds this conflict. Israel has targeted schools which they believe to be harbouring armaments or shielding the entrance to tunnels used by Hamas to launch terror attacks on their State, this cannot have been done without the knowledge that innocent people, including children would die. Hamas, if indeed they have been using schools for militaristic purposes are equally culpable in the deaths of these innocents. In situations such as this it is clear that those leaders of the warring factions who attempt to take the moral high ground, are doing so in the knowledge that they are prepared to take whatever despicable actions they see fit in order to pursue their cause.

Gordon Brown’s article whilst balanced in its synopsis of an evil situation contains some strong statements that should be heeded by all who are concerned. He states his belief that:-

“Schools are not only essential to the delivery of opportunity and sustainable development; it is important that even in the darkest of conflicts, children see their schools as sanctuaries, as places of normality and safety. But there is another reason: in times of war, people need material help – food, shelter, healthcare. But they, especially young people, also need hope. It is through education that we do most to communicate the idea that we are planning ahead for a time free of conflict.”

Schools in this passage are seen as a place of hope. Gordon Brown perceives that they can be powerful institutions for the creation of sanctuary and for instilling a sense of values and justice in the minds of children. Education can be a mighty force for democracy, for enabling children to understand the world in which they live and to develop a sense of responsibility for taking it forward in the future. Yet I cannot help feeling when I see the television images from Gaza, and hear the platitudes and cowardly expressions of the politicians on both sides of this conflict, that they lack the capacity or the courage to ensure that children can be educated in this way.

I imagine that today in Gaza there are children whose view of school is significantly changed from what it may have been a month ago. It is distressing to think that many of these children are possibly now seeing school as a place of danger, somewhere they no longer wish to be, a place to fear. Equally disturbing is the fact that many of these children will grow up to hate those who have killed or maimed their friends and families, and that some of these innocents, who are now to have their childhood stolen from them, will be eager to seek revenge and thus perpetuate a situation that has existed in this region for far too long.

The article in the Guardian is only one amongst many that have been published across the media in recent days. Gordon Brown in presenting his case urges not only those with political power, but all responsible adults to stand up and voice their anxieties about this situation, and others across the world where children are being used and targeted in conflict. He draws our attention to the work of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, an organisation desperately trying to achieve some order out of chaos. But I can’t help wondering if the voices of rational people will simply fade and disappear.

To see for yourself the extent to which children have become victims and are abused by conflict across the world watch the video to which I have posted a link below. Scroll down the linked page to find the video.