“Even now, the war is a big part of me. It’s not a moment in time, it still affects me in so many ways.”

Smajo Beso

Smajo Beso - Smajo's Story

Smajos Story: "Every war is a war on children"

100 years ago this year, Eglantine Jebb, the founder of Save the Children, wrote that ‘Every war is a war on children’.

A century after she penned those words, they still ring with a painful truth that all adults have a duty to hear and act upon.

War harms children in more ways than it is possible to list:

CHILDREN ARE FORCED TO BECOME SOLDIERS
There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the world at present. Children are used because they are easy to manipulate, are cheaper to feed, and have a less developed sense of danger. Armies often send children in as the first wave of attack to draw enemy fire.

CHILDREN ARE SEPARATED FROM THEIR FAMILIES
In the chaos of a conflict situation, it is easy for parents to lose track of their children. In South Sudan, UNICEF has reunited almost 6,000 children with their families. Another 12,000 children are still waiting for their families to be found.

CHILDREN ARE RAPED
Rape is used as a weapon in war to intimidate the civilian population. The UN estimates that of the 10,000 victims of rape during Sierra Leone’s civil war, almost 15% were children. The effects of rape as a war crime include higher rates of HIV, pregnancy, physical scars, and emotional scars that often never heal. Just a few months ago, the US threatened to veto a UN resolution to tackle rape as a weapon of war because they objected to some of its language regarding sexual health.

CHILDREN ARE HARMED PHYSICALLY
On the eve of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Radio Mille Collines, in Kigali, told its listeners: “To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats.” Over the weeks that followed, more than 300,000 Tutsi children were hacked, beaten and burned to death. Children’s small bodies are even more vulnerable to trauma than adults’. For those who survive, the physical scars can last a lifetime.

CHILDREN ARE SCARRED EMOTIONALLY
No statistic can do justice to the nightmares, anxiety and depression experienced by the child victims of war. Traumatised children reveal their stress in dozens of ways, from bed wetting and mutism, to self harm and even suicide.

Because a child is harmed as he or she is still forming themselves, the damage finds its way into the deepest part of the self.

Smajo illustrates this fact when he describes the effect that the war in Bosnia has had on his life:

“Even now, the war is a big part of me. It’s not a moment in time, it still affects me in so many ways.”

*

After seeing their home village of Barane ablaze, the Bešo family had realised that they would never be able to go back to the life they had once had.

On 4 August 1993, Bosnian-Croat forces began to round up Muslim families in Stolac, where Smajo and his family had taken refuge after being forced from their village.

26 years later, Smajo still vividly recalls what happened when he was just eight years old:

“We were forced to march to the factory where my dad used to work. It was a half hour walk.

These were people we knew, soldiers we recognised. They had been our neighbours, our friends. People were panicking, screaming and shouting.

We always walked in the same way: I would walk on the left holding my mam’s left hand, my brother on the right, my sister just ahead of us.

I remember it hurting my hand because my mam was squeezing it so tight out of fear of losing us in the crowd.

They took us in two families at a time. We went in with my auntie’s family.

I remember what happened in that room as if it was yesterday.

There were two soldiers. One of them was focussed specifically on me. My sister started crying hysterically and they took that as a sign that we had money.

I remember a big soldier interrogating me.

One moment he was shouting at me, then he was pretending to be nice, saying he’d buy me a big bar of chocolate if I told him where our money was.

It was so scary. I remember he was wearing aviator sunglasses so when I looked at him I could just see a reflection of myself.

I sometimes wonder if that’s why I often remember myself in those situations as if I’m looking at myself from the outside, because I could see myself crying. I could see what he could see.

He was also holding metal tongs and he was squeezing them in my face, making them snap open and shut.

I always wonder if he had kids of his own, if he had thought about whether he would want someone doing that to his kids. I wonder if he saw us as kids at all.

My brother was at the other side of the room, swivelling on an office chair, looking out the window. We both had shorts on. He had a denim jacket on, my mam had sewed money into the sleeves.

My sister had been given earrings by my grandad when she was born, that was the only connection she had to him. My mam tried to plead the human side, she tried to say, “Please don’t take the earrings, they’re the only things she has from her grandad”, but they didn’t give a shit.

On the floor there was a pile of money and clothes they had taken from people. People had taken money out of banks. Just recently we found the records from that centre: they had gathered over a million marks. But we know that not everything they took was recorded, some of it was just stolen by the soldiers.

I remember I was crying so much, and I was wondering why my brother wasn’t.

I remember always just crying. Every opportunity, I was letting my emotions out. My mam always allowed me to cry, she said it was OK for a boy to show emotions.

My brother doesn’t really talk about what happened. He doesn’t remember a lot of it, that’s his way of dealing with it.

I talk about what happened constantly. For me, talking about it is the only way we can get justice.

The war is part of who I am today, I don’t know who I would be if it hadn’t happened.”

*

None of us can choose whether we experience trauma or not. A child in Syria has no more choice than a child living through the Blitz in Britain in 1940, or any more choice than Smajo had in Bosnia in 1993.

But Smajo says that even though we have no choice about whether we experience traumatic events, all of us can choose how we react to them:

“My mam has always said, ‘How you deal with these things in life is up to you. It’s not what you experience, it’s what you take from it.’

My mam is one of the most optimistic people you could ever meet. She’s a fighter. Whatever was going on, she and my auntie always put food on the table. I always think, if she had had a different attitude, what would my experience of war have been? I think I would have been more angry, more aggressive.”

Smajo’s mother has an important lesson for all of us: by teaching children how to deal with traumatic events in a way that not only protects their humanity, but even enhances it, we not only save them from trauma’s worst effects, but we also prevent them from becoming the kind of people who inflict trauma on others.

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