On Sunday a boy who looked younger than his 16 years was seen struggling with security forces in Iraq in a video. The police had grabbed him walking around the interior ministry offices in the city of Kirkuk, removed his shirt forcibly, and found a two-kilogram bomb strapped to his frail torso. He had been sent there from Mosul, the authorities claimed, by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to detonate the device and unleash havoc.
The visual brought back to me memories of several graphic media images involving children that have besieged our attention in the recent past.
A day before the Iraqi boy was nabbed, another suicide bomber, allegedly aged between 12 and 14, successfully blew himself up and killed 51 people at a wedding in Gaziantep, Turkey. Almost half of the dead were believed to be around his age.
Some days before this incident the world stared in shock at a five-year-old boy, covered in blood and detritus, rescued from under the rubble after an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria. Hours later, the collective horror deepened when news emerged that Omran Daqneesh's 10-year-old brother hadn't survived the attack.
And finally, closer home, we have been seeing faces of Kashmiri children ravaged by wounds inflicted by pellet guns over the past few weeks. Some of them have succumbed to the fatalities, some have gone blind forever. But those who have survived, or may eventually recover their sight, will never be able to forget the tragedies they have witnessed so early in life.
Some of these children are the causes of devastation, others are helpless sufferers of the consequences, but what connects them all is the fact of their early lives being spent in conflict zones. They may or may not be puppets in the hands of certain political masters, but their common adversary is the same: the trauma of growing up in an atmosphere that deprives them of even the semblance of a safe and secure existence.
Shortly after the Iraqi suicide bomber was caught, CNN carried a report pointing out the way children are recruited from war zones by the ISIS — the boys and girls are called 'cubs of the caliphate' — to further its terrorist agenda.
Another investigation by Al-Jazeera earlier this year had revealed a deep-rooted, insidious politicisation of humanitarian aid in areas of unrest. "Children tired of working long hours in sweatshops for little pay tend to find the offer to fight at a salary of $400 a month particularly enticing," reads an observation in the course of this detailed report. It gets to the heart of everything that's wrong with the way their lives are structured from the outset — at once vulnerable to the mercies of the nations invading their countries and susceptible to the machinations of those who are fighting the invaders.
What hope is there for such children, if any?
Earlier this year, when Britain was requested to take in 3,000 Syrian orphans as refugees, it flatly refused them entry in defiance of international law. A British MP, Jo Cox, had to pay with her life for being a supporter of hapless migrants and an activist for their cause. Even if some children from conflict zones had a chance to move to a new country, to start their lives anew, what would it take for them to learn to live with the scars of their origins, to not be haunted by the memories of their early years?
In Kashmir, too, a generation of young people are growing up watching their family and friends being harassed, tortured or killed. No wonder they are learning to throw stones at the very custodians of the state that wants to own them without regard for their rights as citizens. They are having to become part of an adult struggle long before they ought to be.
Blaming only indoctrination for increasing radicalisation of young people in conflict zones across the world is like mistaking the forest for the trees. Our hearts may go out to little Daqneesh, nations may send more aid to his corner of the world to assuage their guilt, but until an ambience of compassion and safety is created around such children, it would be hard to protect them from being consumed by simmering resentment and hatred.
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