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Children of shrapnel.

After a lengthy and bloody period of war Beirut is showing positive signs of recovery. But many of its citizens have grown up knowing only domestic strife. Now the fighting has stopped the funding has dried up. Jos van Noord reports from Beirut.

Perhaps it is because he himself was a child of war that 50 year old Frits Valkenburg, a former official spokesman for the city of Amsterdam, thinks he understands children of Lebanon. For the past two years this charismatic Dutch-man has worked in Beirut as the chief delegate of Terre des Hommes, a Swiss relief organisation that specialises in helping children who are forced to suffer in silence. And there are thousands of such children in Lebanon.

Walking through Beirut's ruined streets in the old commercial heart of this city described, in pre-war days, as the pearl of the Orient, Frits explains something of his own childhood and how it has formed certain beliefs, "As a child I grew up in the eastern part of Holland. Near our house there was a beautiful lane lined with wonderful big trees that suffered a lot of damage during the war from the bombardments. Those trees were full of shrapnel, sharp pieces of metal from the exploding bombs, that had pierced the bark an become embedded in the trunks. But every year the trees blossomed as if nothing had happened. Only years later they gradually died, all of them. By that time the shrapnel had grown into the hearts of the trees and one after the other they died. That is exactly how I see the children of Lebanon. They will not die outright from their recollections but they are suppressing their memories of the war. As they grow older, the memories will grow inside until suddenly they reach the heart."

Since the civil war of the 1970s Lebanon has enjoyed only a few periods of comparative peace and, as a result, many young people have grown into adulthood knowing only violence and war in the streets of their homeland. |In so many ways they have lost their childhood because of the war,' Valkenburg observes.

"Most of them have not been to school for many years, they have never had a nice holiday, enjoyed a school outing or an exciting weekend at the seaside with family and friends. The war has taken everything from them that makes childhood so much fun in peaceful countries. These children have never had a chance to develop in the way other children do. Thousands are handicapped physically as a result of the violence, others have been scarred mentally because of the atrocities that have taken place before their young eyes. The children of Lebanon have learned very little respect for other during these years of war, self preservation is often difficult enough to achieve."

In the heart of a bombed neighbourhood of destroyed Beirut, Terre des hommes has its community youth centre. Once this was a smart area. At the end of the street is the concrete skeleton of the Beirut Hilton, one of the hundreds of sad war monuments in this city, that for over 15 years was at war with itself. Now most of the inhabitants of Wadi Abu Jamil are refugees, or more accurately, displaced people from the Shi'ite villages in the occupied south of Lebanon, where there is still no peace.

We try to teach the children some of life's necessities, things they did not learn because of the war," says Frits, from beneath the straw hat he is well known for in the post-war Beirut streets. "These course are designed by specially trained teachers to help the children get in touch again, hook up with the mainstream of life and, hopefully get into the regular education system.' As we visit, classes are full. Frits knows most of the children by their name.

In some courses the smallest children are drawing and cutting paper. There are special classes for older teenagers, who don't know how to read, write or calculate. "The literacy course is very important for these youngsters. it is not just about knowing how to read a book or a magazine. The importance is in their dignity and self respect. So that they can answer a letter and defend themselves in writing,' explains Frits as we visit the class where teacher Mohammed is teaching 16 to 18 year olds how to tell the time.

Over 15 years of war have also destroyed the Lebanese economy. Poverty is everywhere. Average earnings are less than 250 a month, many have to make ends meet with a lot less. This is all the more difficult with prices rocketing all the time, and many things now can only be paid for in American dollars. Most Lebanese families have serious problems and many men hold two, sometimes even three jobs. All the income is spent on food. Only the rich can afford to go to a doctor or the pharmacist. Education has ceased to be a priority.

All over Beirut children are selling chewing gum and cigarettes or cleaning shoes, children that should be in school, learning for their own sake and for the future of their devastated country. If you buy a packet of chewing gum from them, near the airport or in Hamra Street, their standard comment will be: "May Allah protect you" But who will protect them?

Frits Valkenburg left his well paid job with the City of Amsterdam and flew to Beirut with two suitcases: "Suddenly I was fed up with my-luxury life in Amsterdam," he explains. "I wanted to do something for disregarded people. I found this job as a volunteer working for disregarded children, but I would have been just as happy, probably, if it was for disregarded elderly. I thought in Lebanon a complete generation is going to be lost, I want to go and help them! it was no caprice, I knew the Lebanon. I had studied Arabic and for one year I was a captain-translator with the Dutch Unifil peacekeepers contingent in the south of the country. Later I was also a UN observer on the West Bank."

"There is so much silent poverty in Lebanon. Many children are malnourished as a result of the economic crisis," says Frits when we visit a youth center in Naba'a, where we eat lunch with the children, cooked by one of the mothers: rice with chicken a la libanaise, spiced with an overdose of cinnamon. "You will not notice immediately: they don't look underfed. But their food is very one-sided: only manouche, the Lebanese pancake with sesame. A bite of flour, nothing more. At home they seldomly get a good meal. This is why we provide food at school, at lunchtime and we make it into a social event. The mothers do the shopping, we pay and the mothers take their turn to cook. This is a fantastic success and it works in all directions: the children learn table manners and they learn to listen to each other's stories. Or we invite someone who will tell us about something interesting, or one of the children will tell us all about a personal experience. We try to make it into a social happening, the highlight of the day."

"This is also how we try to surround our children with love, togetherness and a feeling of security. At home they often get beaten. It's not that the parents don't love their children, but Lebanese parents are often themselves nervous wrecks because of the war and they have a very, very hard time trying to keep the family together. This often results in the absence of tenderness towards the children. The parents are simply too busy coping with the hard facts of life." Ironically, the end of fighting in the city has brought about an exacerbation of poverty and hardship.

Frits explained: "When the war ended, many people lost substantial incomes. The militia's have been dismantled, but these fighters have families and they also need to eat. On top of that, many relief organisations have stopped helping the Lebanese. Lebanon is no longer in the headlines and the fighting seems to be over. With many new countries at war, the cameras and the reporters have moved away. Everybody is now concentrating on Bosnia, Somalia and Cambodia. The sad fact, however, is that Lebanon still needs help. I have just learned that I also have drastically to cut back on the budget, I understand, but I disagree with the decision. No fighting, no money, no donations. But this is not the right moment to drop the children of Lebanon. First we ought to help them to get back on their own feet." Improving the lot of Lebanon's children is a much discussed topic but less talk and more action could bring about the essential changes.

"If all the rich Lebanese would, for a change, spend one percent of their annual profit on their unprivileged fellow-countrymen (who they often speak about with great passion), then a serious poverty problems would be solved," says Jesuit priest Theo Vlugt, who works with the poor in the nearby neighbourhood of Bourj Hommoud.

Frits agrees. "He's right. Social conscience is not the most developed aspect of the character of your average wealthy Lebanese. To be honest they talk a lot, but they could not care less. This type of work they would rather leave to us. Let me tell you, here in Beirut there are parties given, for example in the Summerland Hotel, but also in so-called Christian suburbs like Kaslik, Antlias and Jounieh, by rich Lebanese who spend on one evening more than the total annual budget for some of our projects. Expensive cars like Mercedes are commonplace here. Of course this is a disgrace. But simple recognition of this fact does not alter the misery of my children. This is why we have to continue, even if we are disturbed by the shameless attitude of others."

In Saida the Terre des Hommes organisation runs a "Peace Garden", this is the name of the day care centre for 22 handicapped Lebanese war children. It is in fact an ordinary school, but the children also get physiotherapy, so that they learn how to stand on their own feet and cope with their handicap. Says Frits Valkenburg: "We not only teach the children but also the parents to accept the handicap. This is important since Lebanon is one of those countries where a handicapped child has to disappear into the closet when there is a visitor." Reem, a pupil at the school is a happy girl of 12. She was handicapped by polio, but this was also a result of the Lebanese crisis, since there were no immunisation campaigns because of the war. She says she is very, very happy that the war is now over. "We are going to make our country beautiful again."

Near the big refugee camp of Ain Al-Helweh, a heart-stricken settlement of corrugated iron and cardboard sheds on the outskirts of the city of Saida, fighting has just erupted between the Israeli occupiers and resistance groups of Lebanese and Palestinians. One can hear the shells crash, Terre des Hommes has a busy youth centre here as well, with schooling, feeding and a clinic. Frits looks as if he does not hear the shelling, and says: "I wish I could do more in the field of sports, both here in Saida and Beirut. We have two clubs already in Beirut and Tripoli. We are now trying to organise a football club. Financially it does not cost that much, but it's a lot of energy. Sports is most important for the Lebanese youth. Not only for recreation, but even more in terms of education. One learns to take responsibility, togetherness, team spirit, and - very important - one learns to accept defeat and one learns to share in the happiness of others over their victory."

With his straw hat, striped necktie, just a little too short trousers and with iron tips on his shoes, Frits makes a somewhat comic impression in dreary Beirut, where he hops around among the children. "Life in the camps is the worst," he says. "I often visit families there. They come to our schools and clinics. Children of five and six come to tell me about their fears. They are frightened to death when they see a man in uniform. Fearful and nervous children. The south of Lebanon needs peace urgently. There is not one single day without violence of some sort. As a volunteer of course don't make a fraction of what I used to earn in Amsterdam. I get my expenses, sort of. But a human being learns quickly how to adapt and if I look around here at the war children of Lebanon, I feel myself to be tremendously rich."
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Title Annotation:Lebanese war victims
Author:Noord, Jos van
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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