Every Surviving War Child Has Two Stories: One from the War and One from its Aftermath

By Zlata Filipović, on behalf of the members of the Network of Young People Affected by War (NYPAW): Ishmael Beah (www.beahfound.org) born in Sierra Leone is the author of A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Child Soldier. He lives in the USA.

Kon Kelei (www.cmsf.nl) born in Southern Sudan is a spokesperson for War Child Holland. He lives in the Netherlands.

Grace Akallo, born in northern Uganda is the co-author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda's Children. She lives in the USA.

Shena A. Gacu (www.chinakeitetsi.info) formerly called China Keitetsi, was born in Uganda and is the author of Child Soldier: Fighting for my Life. She currently lives in Denmark.

Zlata Filipović, born in Sarajevo, Bosnia is the author of Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo. She lives in Ireland and works on documentary films.

Emmanuel Jal (www.emmanueljal.org) born in Sudan, is a hip hop singer and founder of Gua Africa, dedicated to educating children affected by war and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. He lives in the UK.

I remember trying to write a book report when I heard the first gunshots of my life; sounds that no child, anywhere in the world, should ever hear. I tried hard to concentrate on my homework assignment, worried what the teacher might say the next day. That was the last book report I did for almost two years of my life during the conflict in Bosnia.

My school in Sarajevo was bombed and closed, and in place of the literature classroom wall was an enormous hole from a bomb blast. I left some neatly written essays in the cupboard that was blown apart. I never knew what happened to my teacher -- I never saw her again.

We know what emergencies are: we have felt them on our skin, they crept into our lives, blew them away, sliced them, fragmented them. They stole our innocence, humanity, childhood, families. In all of our cases, conflicts stole one of our basic rights as children and young people -- the right to education. That was the first thing that went when the horrors began. The closure of schools was a sign that something was very wrong.

One day our pens were dropped, notebooks abandoned, benches deserted. Rooms that were once covered with our drawings, lingering with giggles and passed notes became empty. The fear of being called up to the board to solve a math problem and the excitement of discovering the magic of writing were gone. Learning how to play, how to pull a pen across paper and how to leave a permanent mark in this world was snatched from us. Instead, our schools became shelters, places where humanitarian aid was distributed. Schools transformed into bombed-out ghost buildings, vandalized spaces, storerooms for weapons, demarcations of enemy zones and front lines.

Locked inside my house, terrified of the outside world where death could snatch you at anytime, I read endlessly, trying to continuously develop myself. Then one day, some young women from my neighbourhood started a "war school." We did not have real classes, but we met occasionally when the days were relatively quiet and we could be children again for a while. These young women could not bear to watch the children waste away: they gave us their time and generously shared their imagination, creativity and knowledge with us. I will never forget them and what they did for us -- I can only hope that confronted by similar circumstances, I would be as generous and take on the noble task of teacher.

Daily, children like me, like us, around the world, go into cellars and hiding places, into refugee camps or into the army. With them goes the future of their countries and of the world. They die, they are maimed, traumatized, broken -- all of them future leaders, civil servants, scholars, fathers, mothers and teachers.

Some children are lucky enough to have survived or escaped. Yet, after the conflict has ended, as with any trauma, the recovery period is a long one. It happens through many different processes, but it is education that builds a future for fragmented lives and countries, for broken youths and destroyed homes.

Kon remembers his first years at school after deserting the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. He was not aggressive toward his teachers and classmates, but mistrusted them all. The only way he knew to solve problems was to fight, much like many child soldiers. Learning to trust his teachers and classmates was a way out for him -- and the beginning of a new way to live. Education allowed him, as a war child, to gain back his sense of humanity. Without this, he says, the effects of war are carried until they explode somewhere along the line and hurt more people.

When Grace first escaped from the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, the world had already branded her generation a lost cause. To make matters worse, being a girl in her society made her less valuable. In Uganda, those most ostracized or "invisible" are child mothers, who were forced into their situation, their future destroyed. Grace believes education and continued psychosocial counselling helps children and young people move on and make new friends, encouraging them in further pursuits.

Coming out of the war in Sierra Leone, many things helped Ishmael recover: the rehabilitation process and a strong family were key elements. However, holistic healing was possible because he had access to education. Through school, he learned to strengthen the purpose of his own humanity again and reaffirm that he is not only capable of violence, as he had come to believe in his childhood years, but was capable of so much more.

Schools are where we realize our potential, where we become social beings, where we grow and develop as functioning, contributing and empathetic members of our communities and the world. After a conflict, this is where information on the dangers of landmines can be disseminated, the prevention of HIV/AIDS can be taught and the seeds of reconciliation sown. This is where guns can be exchanged for knowledge and training, and where peacebuilding messages are interwoven with skills and knowledge.

If sustainable peace is to be attained, we all firmly believe that education should be an integral part of every peace agreement, and strong attention should be given to all education projects in both conflict and post-conflict countries. Education initiates the long journey for war-affected children to reclaim their youth, discover their own humanity and develop their contribution to society. It is also an antidote for violence: it gives young people the ability to use their minds in a positive and constructive manner, enabling them to have the capacity for transformation, and to build or repair the foundations of their dreams and hopes.

We have been lucky. We survived and have all benefited from reinstated education in our lives. We can even have a voice today, and you can hear us because we all had the chance to go back to school.

Each year 750,000 children have their education disrupted or are denied their right to education due to various humanitarian disasters. Millions more have not seen the inside of a classroom for years. With a third of the world's population under the age of 15, children should all be assured the right to mandatory and free education, despite wars, natural disasters, poverty, disease, epidemics and post-conflict recoveries.

This is why many war children are supporting initiatives such as Save the Children's Rewrite the Future campaign in its goal to convince world leaders and international organizations to provide more educational opportunities to children in fragile, conflict-affected States. Trust us, we know. Our pens were snatched away, but we luckily got hold of them again. And we now have a voice, which we hope you can hear, as we speak on behalf of those who are voiceless.