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WHATEVER be one’s ideological stance on the Anglo-US alliance’s carpet bombing of war-torn Afghanistan, there can be no ambiguity about the impending humanitarian crisis. Most observers agree that unless the armed conflict is brought to a speedy end, the coming year is likely to witness the avoidable death of 100,000 children. And this is a conservative estimate. Coming as it does in the wake of a similar casualty rate in sanctions affected Iraq, the moral basis of support to the war against global terrorism does appear somewhat shaky.

These shocking figures have now, fortunately, entered public discourse. But what our guardians of public morality insufficiently realize is that the current tragedy is a continuing one, reflective of our unconcern towards the underside of war. If for no other reason, The Impact of War on Children (Orient Longman, 2001) by Graca Machel, UN Special Rapporteur on the impact of armed conflict on children, should be made essential reading.

Machel’s tract does not make for easy reading; the painful and brutal reality it documents ensures that. Even the evocative photographs by Sebastiao Salgado, long admired for his pictorial description of the lives of the world’s dispossessed, in particular Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age, do nothing to lessen the feeling of dread.

It is not unknown that children (and women) are the first unwitting victims of conflict among male adults. In most societies they command low social weight, are relatively powerless and voiceless and thus easily disregarded as those who matter wrestle with weightier matters. What is less talked about is the direct role of children in situations of armed conflict.

As part of government armies, rebel forces, paramilitary and militia groups, child soldiers – voluntarily or forcibly recruited – play a crucial role. And not just as messengers, porters and cooks but as combatants. A particularly ugly role is as suicide bombers, ostensibly because they are easier to brainwash and coerce. As for girls, who constitute a significant proportion, their abuse as providers of sexual services is only now coming to light.

As conflicts drag on, recruits tend to get younger and younger, both because the potential catchment of available adults tends to be exhausted and families, pushed into poverty, have fewer avenues to keep children out of risk. If not as direct actors in conflict, children get pushed out as refugees, including across borders, where they constitute the growing population of street children, child prostitutes and bonded slaves as also workers in the informal sector.

The after-effects of such violence can be well imagined with those who survive the physical assaults condemned to a life of nightmares, hallucinations and delusions. I wonder if we realize the long term implications of newer generations growing up in the theatre of conflict – bitter, angry and nihilistic, adding to the growing numbers who contribute to a politics of destructiveness.

A large part of Graca Machel’s meticulously documented report provides chilling details of the number of children in conflict and at risk, the varieties of ways in which this involvement takes place, and the many implications – personal and societal – of letting these processes go unchallenged. Be it threats to life and limb from landmines and unexploded ordinance (incidentally a statistic in which Afghanistan leads the world) to the danger of AIDS – our children have seen and experienced it all.

This is why the debate on evolving new covenants, setting new child right standards, and so on, while necessary carries an impression of unrootedness. Despite over 150 countries having signed the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and every country vying with the other to add more elements to the covenant, extant practice departs radically from stated norms.

Take our own case. We may not have experienced the horrors of a Rwanda or Bosnia, Afghanistan or Sri Lanka, but have done little about the steady diminution of social expenditures on programmes for children – health, education, nutrition. The recent death of 11 children in the neonatology department of a leading hospital in Lucknow all because the institution could not ensure a regular supply of oxygen, even worse the reactions of the concerned officials, is proof enough of our callousness. At times like these we immediately hide behind the fig-leaf of poverty. One wonders how many are actually taken in by our sanctimonious moralizing and weak public policy defence.

It is politically incorrect to end on a cynical or defeatist note. If Machel, despite her exposure to the seamy underside of life can still argue for a children’s agenda for peace and security, so should we.

Harsh Sethi