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‘I had to kill so many people’: The battle to protect children in conflicts

25 000 grave violations were committed against children in conflict in 2019, says the UN, which hopes to highlight issue with new international day.

When Islamic State fighters rolled into Mosul, Iraq, they made promises.

“When they arrived they promised us salvation, a better life, but within months our schools were closed and we were living in fear, prisoners in our own city,” says Usama Salem, 11.

The fighters executed children in public, recruited them as soldiers and repurposed schools as military bases. Now to reach his former school, Al-Ekhlas primary in Nabi Jarjis, Usama navigates yellow tape reading “danger unexploded bombs” and mountains of rubble, contorted steel and broken glass.

“That used to be my classroom,” he says, pointing to the bullet-pierced second floor. “I was in the sixth grade, we were sad to see the school close. Who knows when it will reopen?” The roof is cratered by the coalition air strikes that liberated the city in 2017.

António Guterres says what happened to Usama, and tens of thousands of other children, is something that he wants to change. His response – considered by some to be less than muscular – is for the UN to make 9 September the International Day to Protect Education from Attack.

The UN secretary general defended the move, saying: “This day highlights the often hidden – but crucially important – violation of children’s rights in conflict: the right to an education.”

Usama Salem, 11, in what used to be his classroom. (Paddy Dowling, Education Above All)

Currently the only international agreement aimed at protecting schools and universities from attack and restricting their use for military purposes is the non-binding 2015 safe schools declaration. Just 104 of the 193 UN member countries have signed the declaration. Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia, all accused of attacks on schools and hospitals, are among those who have not.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, as leader of the coalition in Yemen, was returned to the list of countries who continue to commit grave violations against children after 683 died and 38 schools and hospitals were targeted in Yemen in 2016. The UN says Saudi Arabia was closely monitored and subsequently removed from the list in 2020.

“Decisions are taken based on time-bound joint action plans, commitments and road maps signed by listed parties with the United Nations,” says Guterres. “With a view to closely monitor implementation leading to a sustained, significant decrease in violations against children and concrete differences for them in the short, medium and long term. Such plans are regularly reassessed for compliance and possible follow-up action.” School’s out in Kashmir: classes held in meadows amid closuresRead more

Since the introduction of the UN’s Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) mandate in 2005, the international community has developed instruments to strengthen the protection of children affected by armed conflict, working on preventing violations from occurring in the first place as well as negotiating release and reintegration.

The UK, a leading member of the UN security council working group on CAAC, is known for applying pressure on parties listed as committing violations against children but has come under renewed criticism for selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

A British government spokesperson said: “The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.

“Saudi Arabia must protect children’s rights and continue to take positive steps to protect children in armed conflict, such as by implementing the memorandum of understanding signed between the UN and Saudi Arabia in March 2019.”

In 2019, more than 25 000 grave violations were committed against children, according to the UN. This includes killing, maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, abduction and the denial of humanitarian access.

In 2019 non-state actors or “rebel groups” were responsible for two-thirds of all grave violations against children and the vast majority of recruitment of 7 747 child soldiers in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

Usama’s school in Mosul was reduced to rubble. (Paddy Dowling, Education Above All)

The remaining third were committed by government forces.

While hospitals have protected status in conflict under international law, enshrined in the Geneva convention, the safeguarding of schools is not reinforced by legislation.

“Any child that is recruited, raped, abducted, killed, maimed, denied access to humanitarian aid and denied education and healthcare due to attacks on schools or hospitals, is one too many,” says Guterres.

In South Sudan, Moses would agree. He is trying to pull a future together. At 15 he saw his dad murdered and he was then abducted by the same militia and trained in warfare and theft.

His initiation was to execute a bound and gagged prisoner and his reward was to carry the AK-47 machine gun. He has since been released but his mental health has been destroyed. “I had to kill so many people, innocent people from my country, I just stopped counting … so many,” says Moses, now 18, his eyes on the floor.

This feature was originally published by The Guardian’s global development project.

Paddy Dowling is a humanitarian correspondent and photojournalist for The Guardian.