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Viewpoint: What and how should I tell my kids about the Tigray war in our ‘post-war’ life?- A father’s reflection

A man passing by a destroyed tank in Tigray (Photo: Tigray Television)

By Haftu Hindeya Gebremeskel

I have lived in hell with my family!

Mekelle, Tigray – In the past two years of war in Tigray, we lived in a manmade siege and blockade that parallels hell. This hell was different from what is commonly called God’s hell. I remember some of the teachings I attended in the church during my elementary school. The preachers used to tell us humans have two options after earthly death: hell or heaven. In hell, evil souls are destined to receive eternal punishment. But, one thing is common in between. There is no more death that you will die whatever the punishment is based on the deeds you accomplished on earth. So, you have a right to live forever but face the ‘water or fire’ based on your deeds. It means you can carry on living with the torture or punitive suffering forever. That was my understanding when I was a kid. I am not sure if things have changed after.

In those past years of Ethiopians’ made hell, we had no choice of living even when receiving those severe punishments day in and day out. For to many of us living in Tigray, the past two years are recorded as the darkest moments of our life. Everything inhuman has been experimented on us. White phosphorus, new drones borrowed from irresponsible countries, Old Russian jets, and all that has been found on the menus have been tried out. The worst of all is that we were denied all essential services (banking, telecom, electricity, etc.) needed for human beings to survive in the 21st century. We were in a very testing time. It was very challenging for many of us to serve a meal for just a day to our kids. Even the richest people in Tigray were left in turmoil as their bank accounts have been made to freeze indiscriminately.

In this deliberately created hell, you don’t know when you will die or when your kids or other loved ones will depart from you forever. If you are a female, then, the suffering becomes many-fold. In addition to what our women shared with us, they were gang raped. According to Amnesty’s report, published in 2021, focusing on sexual violence in the war-torn Tigray, it was documented that widespread rape and sexual violence were carried out. The victims constituted children and pregnant women. The report pronounced Tigrayan women and girls were subjected to rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation, and other forms of torture. The barbarian predators were harassing them using ethnic slurs and death threats. Rape and sexual violence have been used as a weapon of war. What made these all worse was that all these atrocities have aimed at degrading and dehumanizing the Tegaru women and girls thereby bringing lasting physical and psychological damage to them.

Forgetting the atrocities?

So, how is it possible for a victim to forget all these atrocities? Many of course blame that we have no culture of institutional or societal memory and we will likely forget the unparalleled cruelty we have experienced in the 21st century. How is it possible for our kids to either selectively modify or format if needed, the bad memories they have experienced? How is it possible to reconcile all those deliberate and repeated mishaps of generations without serving justice and accountability? These all make it difficult to rule out our only option: teaching our kids to avenge their enemy in the future as we did fail to do so in the past, and we are paying the price for not doing so. But, will doing so help? My answer will be I don’t think so!

I have to keep my kids at home as they get a lot of information, not feasible for their age, about what is going on when they play outside with their peers

In those unforgettable traumatic years, our children in particular had suffered a lot.

One day, as usual, a military jet bombed a civilian residence in Mekelle. We were watching the aftermath of the bombing on TV. We were watching to know the number of casualties as death has become a daily phenomenon. The question was not about knowing the number of attacks we were experiencing; but, how many people have we lost. So, our concern was the number. How many? If it is relatively less in number, we used to say we are lucky. Unlike all the daily bombings, that day’s attack is still vivid in my memory.

A father was crying outside his demolished house. He wasn’t at his home at the time but his family just vanished in seconds.

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As we all, the residents and my families were in shock, I didn’t notice we were watching the breaking news on TV with my kids. A photo of two brothers in the demolished house was seen hanging on the wall. Then, I saw my kids’ similar photo in our home and then turned to my side and hugged my kids, and they were also in shock. I was like scanning the life of my kids. My older daughter was crying as she saw the photo and dead bodies of the two angels. This was our daily life in the past two traumatizing years of siege and blockade.

Unfortunately, our kids were by far aware of the atrocities. It was a common experience to see kids carrying fake guns, fighting each other in role-play, etc. I have to keep my kids at home as they get a lot of information, not feasible for their age, about what is going on when they play outside with their peers. So, keeping them away from their friends was a bad but plausible solution for me at that time.

What’s more worrying is that those savage actions have affected our kids’ aspirations and perspectives on life.

Mentioning two cases here may suffice to show the trauma, change in aspirations, and perspectives of the war kids in Tigray. This may also show the tasks we have ahead to support the psychological needs of our children.

From crying to saving a cockroach to killing a person!

Ana, now 10, was in grade 1 before the war broke out. She stood first while she was in KG3 and Grade 1 and got a 100% average in all subjects in Grade 1. Then, she passed to grade 2 during what we call the PP (Prosperity Party) period and again she scored the same. She got a special award from her school as she stood first in her cycle (grades 1 to 4). Her perspective on humanity and nature was quite optimistic. When she was KG 2, I remember she bitterly cried one day. She was so mad at me and she argued a lot and was annoyed by my actions. The reason was that I killed a cockroach and she was quite depressed considering my action as evil. She was so furious and questioned me why I did that. At that time, I was a bit confused as it is quite common to do so in my culture. She said to me that this animal had a life and she was just going peacefully to her home. Unfortunately, you killed her. Her kids might be waiting for her. She said she is feeling what her kids would feel in the absence of their mother. You did a very bad thing, Daddy, she said. I was shocked and kindly begged her to pardon me for my actions. I was of course ashamed of my behavior. I never thought that way before.

Nonetheless, this same Ana had a very different perspective after the war. Before the Pretoria agreement was signed some 4200 prisoners of war (PoWs) were released from the Tigray side. We were following the event together on TV and she asked me a question. Daddy, why are they releasing them? They have been killing many people. I said to her that these are just ordinary soldiers who just executed what they were told to do. Of course, I had no other justification except to say what has come to my mind at the moment. She didn’t accept my explanation. How about if General ‘X’ (a notorious Ethiopian army general who was flaming the war by using white propaganda) is captured? I said I think they will do the same. I said there is no difference between captured and killed soldiers, darling. That was an explanation I heard from a veteran Tigrayan soldier. She out-rightly rejected my idea and said he must be killed if he is captured. He was the reason for all the crimes committed against us. I was shocked and felt very frustrated. This is just a painful transformation from crying to save a cockroach to suggesting to kill a person.

My son, Haben, 7, used to tell me he wanted to be a doctor when he gets older. But, after the war, he constantly wants to be a pilot of a fighter jet to retaliate against what he calls his enemies. He once said why I would be a doctor for humans while they are killing humans (us). 

This family experience may represent how the perspectives of the Tigray children are shaped by the war. This of course may not represent the whole but as we were situated in a better location, Mekelle, the capital, compared to the atrocities committed in other places in Tigray, the other children’s perspective is expected to be more pessimistic compared to the kids living in Mekelle. So, parents and teachers are expected to understand such perspectives so that children can heal from the pains they have been enduring. Of course, during the war, the media from both sides were acting irresponsibly as they were propagating everything they feel can affect the enemy without giving any warning to parents to protect children from viewing those horrible and upsetting images and experiences. 

So, why would I be anxious as a parent?

As a parent who has seen and lived in hell with my family, I ask myself, what and how should I talk to my kids about those horror stories? They have already developed animosity and it has become difficult for them to face the new reality of the recent changes following the peace accord: arch-enemies hugging each other soon after close to a million people vanished. This has become difficult for parents to reconcile too. 

There are different arguments I usually confront here.

Some argue that we should tell children everything that happened to us so that they get acquainted with all and know what their future holds for them. Those who advance this idea say that we are destined for such continued suffering due to our geopolitical position. Even some extend this argument that our children should know all the evils in life as far as they are living in Africa. Of course, this people’s argument sounds fit to my experience. At my age, I have experienced three senseless wars. When I was in the early grades, there was a civil war between Tigray, Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the then-military Ethiopian regime. Almost all the atrocities we are seeing today happened in all forms at that time too. When I joined high school the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea broke out. Of course, I escaped from forced conscription in the war with Eritrea. Then, the current war happened for the third time. Thus, considering all these experiences those people’s argument holds water.

In whatever type we advance our arguments, parents need to know that the war has had a very huge psychosocial impact on kids

The second argument is the polar opposite of the above. The kids should not be told anything about the bad experiences as they may be affected psychologically and develop hatred toward the people who they refer to as the enemy. The kids may also generalize this enmity to all humans. In this argument, it is like telling your kids the war and all its effects were due to very few irresponsible politicians and have nothing to do with the people hosting those politicians. Those who advocate this idea say that doing so will help children heal their wounds easily and integrate smoothly with the rest of society. In short, it means forgetting all the atrocities committed behind.

The third is telling the kids what it was selectively and helping them understand and explore the possible future scenarios by themselves. This is beyond telling or imparting. This includes mirroring reality and helping kids analyze why it happened and what can be done to avoid it from happening again in the future. This resonates with the assumptions of the constructive learning theory. This theory states that learners construct knowledge rather than just passively take in information. It assumes that as children experience the world and reflect upon those experiences, they will construct their knowledge. In so doing, children use their pre-existing knowledge (schemas) and try to integrate new information into what they have created. It means that in the context where we are, though we try our best to impart our knowledge of the war to the minds of our kids as mentioned above, we are not sure that our kids have stored and understood it in the way we thought it to be. It is because children have the power to use the knowledge we imparted on their own and possibly by adding something new that we are not aware of and creating something new.

In whatever type we advance our arguments, parents need to know that the war has had a very huge psychosocial impact on kids. Parents need to recognize that because our kids appear happy doesn’t mean they have forgotten everything. Of their mere exposure to situations of terror and horror during the war, they may develop posttraumatic stress disorder. It is believed that exposure to such senseless war leads children to high rates of hopelessness and anxiety.

So, what and how should I tell the aftermath of the war to my kids?

UNICEF suggested eight tips on how to talk to or approach conversations with children about conflict and war to support and comfort them and lessen their feelings of fear, sadness, anger, and anxiety. These are: finding out what they know and how they feel. This creates an opportunity for parents to correct misconceptions about information kids get from different sources. Using age-appropriate language, watching their reactions, and being sensitive to their level of anxiety is the second one. This is telling the kids Samaritans are there for them though there are some evils out there. It is assuring kids that they will be safe from any danger as there are very good people working to stop the war. Third is spreading compassion over stigma. This entails explaining to kids every human deserves to live in peace safely. Making kids aware of the impacts of bullying and stigma and being kind and supportive to others are included. Focusing on the helpers and making kids know that people are supporting each other gives them a sense of hope. Another one is making close conversations with care with the kids. Here, we need to be sure that our kids are living with anguish. Telling them we are there for them to listen and support lessens the possible state of distress. It is also worth checking the situation of our kids continuously in addition to limiting the flood of news that they will get exposed to. Switching off the channels that frequently focus on alarming headlines and upsetting images is essential. Finally, UNICEF, recommends taking care of oneself as it is a prerequisite to taking care of others. 

My take here

Though not far from UNICEF’s tips, I would like to suggest the following.

Paul Ferere, a famous Brazilian philosopher in his book, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ mentioned that “It is easy for the oppressed to fight their oppressors only to become the opposites of what they currently are. In other words, this just makes them the oppressors and starts the cycle all over again.” If we are advocating arguments 1 and 2 above, it is likely that we are perpetuating oppression and we will end up in an endless vicious cycle of oppression. Because our kids are oppressed at this time and luckily have managed to change their position to oppressor does not make them free from oppression.

Ferere further noted that to be a liberated or a whole person, we must identify the oppressors and work together to seek liberation. This requires understanding the intention or mindset of the oppressors. According to Ferere, our effort to understand the mindset in our deliberations need to liberate humans from perpetuating oppression, as the oppressor and the oppressed are both oppressed. In my view, this fits my third category of argument above.

Thus, parents need to know that teaching their kids to avenge does not make them free from oppression. Neither does telling everything safeguards them from anxiety. I believe the solution is in between. Tell them the facts in a way they understand you. Allow them to reflect on them. Don’t dictate them. Then, help them find the right way to live a peaceful life with others. Make them subjects of the issue. Help them own the reality and figure out the possible scenarios they want to see in the future.

At the moment, we adults are celebrating the Pretoria peace accord. Our kids have begun their school that was closed for the past three years in a row. But, parents and others concerned with working on children need to know that many things are still happening in the minds of our kids. This needs our serious deliberation and actions if we need to see a better future for our children and the world. 

Editor’s Note: Haftu Hindeya Gebremeskel is an associate professor at the Department of Teacher Education, Institute of Pedagogical Sciences of Mekelle University. He can be reached at haftulg81@gmail.com

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