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Ομιλία στη Γενεύη με τίτλο Children and War
Ημερομηνία: 29-06-2012

War is an intolerable crime in itself, even more so when this crime involves innocent young children. If we consider that in Western culture, the right to life is an ultimate right, we can therefore understand the gravity of taking the life of a child. And the even greater tragedy of the consequences, both for the children and for society at large, when conflicts do not end life but instead, cause major long-term problems that society cannot exonerate.

In any conflict, irrelevant of its length, the primary victims are children. It is worse in cases where it lasts for years, when it is largely affected by peaks or stagnation, and when one of the two sides is noticeably stronger. The conditions for children are even harsher when a population is under continuous occupation.

In military conflict, children, being part of the civilian population, theoretically must be protected. However, they usually become victims of:

1. War wounds

2. Psychological trauma and stress

3. A destruction or inhibition of childhood

4. Neglected health

5. A lack of educational and cultural development

In the last 25 years, I have lived through all, or nearly all, wars in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus and most recently in Libya. We have been making efforts to work in Syria, but have not received a positive response from other volunteers. My expertise being in paediatric surgery and traumatology, and my status a volunteer, I believe I have enough experience to present an overview of the violations of children's rights and the number of risks they are exposed to.

I have experienced the tragedy of the conflict in Kurdistan, in southeast Turkey, in northern Iraq, in north-eastern Syria and in West Iran. There, one can really discover that children are decimated without mercy by revengeful operations, and it is well known that entire Kurdish villages have disappeared. On the other hand, there are young children, mostly between the ages of 12 and 14, who bear arms and fight, risk their lives, and kill. I have treated little girls who were injured in attacks under very primitive conditions. There, one discovers that the very sensitive nature of puberty is of no importance to these children, and of course, they have never been taught about basic everyday hygiene. Education is doubtlessly limited or absent, while separation from the family is a given fact from a very early age.

The main characteristic of these children is the fanaticism and passion with which they arm themselves, and their stubborn refusal to discuss or even listen to other opinions.

I have been met by similar phenomena, such as the recruitment of child soldiers, in the South Caucasus, while the carnage suffered by young children and adolescents in the seven year war between Iran and Iraq in the late eighties is notorious.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I discovered the inability of voluntary organizations to access medical facilities in conflict zone. I have also discovered the daunting refusal of certain leaders to provide the opportunity to volunteers to work within somewhat organized and acceptable premises. In Afghanistan we operated upon children who were injured by bullets, missiles and explosions without anaesthetic and without the ability to support our medical assumptions through basic medical examinations. We would make a number of interventions under these conditions and our main concern was the life of the injured child.

The conditions in the Caucasus were slightly better, but again we were confronted by the same dilemma: either try to operate under primitive conditions, or assume the responsibility of yet another premature death, without giving a shred of hope to the wounded. I have made several amputations under such conditions as well as operating upon blunt abdominal traumas. I remember the stubborn refusal of the Shi'as in Iraq to allow me to carry out surgery and the headstrong attempts by the US soldiers to impose my medical opinion. I have found myself carrying out surgery with armed men within the operating room, although as you may understand this runs contrary to both medical ethics and my own principles.

The psychological support of children who survive war wounds is of particular importance, especially through the parents and more specifically, the mother. Getting this message across is difficult considering the language barriers, and this is the reason why local people, civil society and the more educated should mobilize. 

Long-running conflicts hinder the development of facilities such as hospitals, schools, roads, educational centres for the less fortunate children, while a war, albeit brief, could be particularly devastating for any infrastructure.

I would like to stress that in modern times, war has lost its chivalric bravery. With the push of a single button, the universe can be blown to pieces even if the operation is presented as meticulously planned.  The collateral damage of the civilian population and especially of children is very high and in some cases may be premeditated.

 - Recall the ongoing massacre in Syria and the decimation of entire families.

 What I would like to draw attention to, is that the laws of war do exist, just as international human rights treaties, but in times of war, they are forgotten.

The only possible solution is therefore, avoiding conflict altogether and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Certainly peace cannot exist without freedom and freedom cannot exist without justice. So long as injustice perpetuates, so will conflicts continue. 

We continuously witness an equally tragic situation in Gaza and southern Lebanon. These are areas that house the poorest neighbourhoods of the world. You cannot know of poverty unless you visit the refugee settlements of Lebanon. I have lived through them and can testify to the use of phosphorous and chemical bombs in southern Lebanon and the carnage of thousands of children in Gaza. Even during periods of respite, the wounds have no time to heal, as we see that there is none or very little viable infrastructure. It is on a number of occasions that we had an eletric power cut during surgery and had to try our best to save the patient while the generator was being started, if it could be started at all. In Banja Luka in Bosnia, it was an immense tragedy when we lost a great number of newly born babies due to the lack of materials for surgery and oxygen in the city as a result of the embargo. In the Gaza Strip, which is in permanent exclusion, there is a continuous shortage of pharmaceutical material. In times of crises these shortages reach extreme levels. This is why, in December 2009 we attempted to break the embargo of Gaza by carrying eight tons of pharmaceutical material with the small boat "Dignity" that was rammed while at sea and almost sunk. It would, nonetheless be unfair not to mention that the Israeli doctors have quite often helped us with medicinal material and that 30% of the Israelis do not agree with their government's policy.

The populations that remain under occupation, or suffer the consequences of long-term conflicts cannot provide children with proper care for the physical, psychological and emotional health problems that accumulate thereafter. Vaccinations are not regular, children suffer from malnutrition and vitamin deficiency and simple diseases become major problems.

In the Gaza strip, for numerous reasons which I do not have time to analyse now, there is a high incidence of congenital malformations in the urinary and genital tract. Thus, resulting in many thousands of children growing up in the drama of sexual uncertainty. In a study I presented in 2006, I had discovered that in order to complete all the pending cases I would have to operate on a daily basis from dawn till dusk for three consecutive years.

In the case of Gaza, I also wish to address the phenomena of the suicide-bomb attacks in which the perpetrator himself has been victim to this horrible psychological trauma and consequently subjects children to this serious crime against childhood. In this instance, the blind strike of a suicide bomber cannot be politically justified but can be psychologically explained.

The training that takes place in all areas of the conflict is particularly problematic and psychological development is strongly influenced because of the disharmony in the proper functions of the families, the poverty, a continuous sense of risk and the lack of infrastructure. Let me bring to your attention that thousands of children from Gaza and South Lebanon were denied the opportunity to study with a scholarship in European Universities due to the fact since birth, they have never been recorded within a registry nor been granted any documents of identification.

Particular are also the circumstances of the tragically enclaved children, such as those of my own homeland in the occupied area of Rizokarpaso a crime which is committed within the EU itself, to which the international community should effectively respond.

The children who have had dead or missing relatives live compelling lives as they unfortunately do not have the appropriate support and treatment.

At this point allow me to remind you of the slaughters at Sabra, Sattila and tel el zaatar. And to quote a close friend of mine who used to be a Palestinian leader of feiendine, who lost 8 younger sisters and 3 nieces one night in the same massacre: "my main concern was not to save their lives but to bury them, not to be eaten by the dogs".  

I would say that the struggle for the implementation of human rights, the respect for democracy and peace, the acceptance of humanitarian principles and values can be successful by establishing foundations for growth and prosperity. Their aim should be the prevention of violations against children and to enhance their opportunities to grow up.

Conseuqently, the United Nations should enforce all mechanisms for the prevention of crises. This is where the rationale of prevention arises, in order to foster conditions for further growth and development so as to meet the needs of the people and nations.

In addition, states and political leaders must be convinced not to turn the blind eye on crises and human rights violations for decades but then react when their interests are at stake or the population erupts in revolution. They should present political will, which is based on principles of democracy, just as the US President Woodrow Wilson envisioned it in 1918 and which subsequently became part of the foundational pillars of the Charter of the United Nations. As a counterweight to military deterrence, we could add education, culture and development. In such preventive rationale, the strengthening of collective security and action is vital. This can further be reinforced through greater support toward the international criminal legal system, whereby the more active involvement by all states, the more accountable perpetrators will become for their crimes.

The pooling of information on the impact of wars upon children and their families in all areas of the world can also help enhance this vision. Past experiences could aid in better addressing the problems as they arise. This process can engage academic institutions with the involvement of physicians, political scientists, politicians, citizens, volunteers and NGOs.

The UN should further take the initiative to create better coherence in response units for children and their families. I am currently trying to convince the EU to establish a unitary humanitarian task force to immediately respond to crises. There should be better coordination on a world-wide scale, where, for example, war-prone areas are armed with hospital teams and mobile hospitals. Highly trained personnel should be readily available, either in situ or to meet the needs for territories within the vicinity.

Such a set of recommendations I believe should be examined and considered diligently, for further action and their eventual implementation in order to move from words to deeds.