EMERGENCIES - 21 February 2023

Protecting children growing up alone - on opposing sides of war and conflict

Working in complex humanitarian emergencies is a daunting challenge. In this interview, Dr. Dereje Wordofa, president of SOS Children's Villages International, talks about the challenges of working in the context of conflicts and war and the humanitarian principles that SOS Children's Villages follows in its humanitarian work.

Q: What are the top priorities when caring for children in the midst of war and conflict? 

Dr. Dereje Wordofa 

Wherever we work, our top priority is to protect and support children without parental care or at risk of growing up alone. War puts children, especially those without adequate parental care, in acutely vulnerable situations.

Everywhere we work, we need to cooperate with communities and local authorities. In the context of war and conflict, that can become a challenge, as we usually need to work with governments or groups on opposing sides to be able to carry out our work.

We follow the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence, and neutrality. Our interventions are not a political act and should not be viewed as such. We are on the side of children who grow up alone or are at risk of growing up alone.

Q: What does it mean to be 'on the side of children' in a conflict?

In times of war and armed conflict, people are expected to take sides. Some believe that SOS Children's Villages should also take sides in a conflict, but we do not take political positions. We may have SOS Children's Villages providing life-saving assistance in a region controlled by the government as well as in areas under the command of a party to the conflict. For the safety of children and staff – and the continued operation of our programmes – we need to deal with all sides, regardless of whether or not we agree with their political outlook.

Undeniably, children are innocent victims of war of any kind. Our main goal is to protect and care for children without parental care, no matter their identity, even when working under extremely challenging circumstances. We are present in more than 130 countries - a number of which have a history of war, political upheaval, and social unrest. We have been in some of these countries for decades, regardless of changes in government, political tension or violent conflict. I believe our commitment to stay longer in a community  is because we are known for our impartiality, and for always being there for children at risk of growing up alone.

Q: What are some examples of how you are able to work on both sides of a conflict?

For example, SOS Children's Villages has been active in Ukraine for nearly 20 years and has supported more than 74,000 children since the start of the war. SOS Children's Villages has worked in Russia for more than 25 years and currently has more than 600 children in its direct care.

I am reminded of one particular story in Ukraine, where a 10-year-old girl and her 9-year-old brother were left orphaned after an artillery attack struck their home, killing their father. Their mother had died years before. Since they had no relatives to care for them, authorities alerted SOS Children's Villages, which was able to place them with an experienced foster family who came from the children's home village in eastern Ukraine. They are now safe in Western Ukraine, cared for by adults they can trust. I am sure there are similar stories of children in Russia who have lost parental care – perhaps even from this war – who are now cared for so they too, can thrive.

In Somalia, a country gripped by decades of violent conflict, we have had a continuous presence for 40 years, providing protection, care, health and education, and wherever we had access to provide humanitarian assistance. In the recent conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, we were able to work across the country while we were supporting our children's village in Mekelle and ensuring the safety of the children, caregivers, families and staff. Given the complexity brought by protracted war, we always uphold the humanitarian principles to address the desperate needs of children and families. 

Q: What are some main challenges of working in a conflict zone?

Working in complex humanitarian emergencies is a daunting challenge. In addition to following humanitarian values, we also follow the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, which states that the humanitarian imperative comes first.

However, this is not always understood by all governments or all parties in a conflict. Some may expect us to take sides or deny emergency humanitarian assistance to children. Like all parties in the conflict, we have an obligation to protect the rights of children on all sides of conflict. 

The critical challenge for us is ensuring the safety and survival of the children, amid violent conflict, by providing timely and adequate life-saving humanitarian assistance. We must provide not only food, water, medical assistance and shelter, but crucially help all children to overcome the trauma induced by war and destructions through timely psychosocial support. That is why I called it a daunting challenge. 

Q: Is there ever a situation where you would no longer stay neutral?

We always uphold the humanitarian principles. Our goal is to protect and care for children regardless of political complexity. Sometimes we are unable to get humanitarian access. In such cases, we would prefer to keep a low profile to remove barriers to assist children in need and to get access to the hard-to-reach places. For example, we may apply quiet diplomacy to engage and negotiate with parties to a conflict to continue protecting children under extremely difficult circumstances. 

As a young humanitarian worker in the late 80s, I witnessed major humanitarian operations in the midst of protracted war in Northern Ethiopia. It was one of the major life-saving efforts in Africa, coordinating humanitarian responses both in the government-controlled and rebel-held areas. I can testify that the humanitarian actors bravely did put compassion over politics to reach out to those in need.

Having said this, we can be vocal to call for peace whenever we get the chance. Durable peace effectively solves child suffering induced by war and violent conflict. 

If we fail to get access to provide emergency humanitarian assistance or are forced to leave, we may support local organizations in the community to keep children safe. In Haiti and South Sudan, we had recent experiences where we evacuated children and staff from a children's village to safer locations. I think we could only then, from a place of safety, raise awareness on the actions of one party, with the hope we may be able to return. 

Q: Do SOS Children's Villages' member associations on different sides of conflict work together?

I know that there have been joint programmes between our SOS Children's Villages in Israel and in Palestine where children came together as simply children – not people on different sides of a conflict. Such opportunities are necessary to foster understanding at a young age and hopefully plant a seed of acceptance of people from other nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. I hope the same will happen between children and staff in Ukraine and Russia once peace is finally restored. These are small but important steps to creating a better future for all.

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