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Angola's Children and the Legacy of Civil War

Jacket cover for <i>Free to Play in Peace</i>, published by the Christian Children's Fund.
Jacket cover for Free to Play in Peace, published by the Christian Children's Fund.

Earlier this month, the African nation of Angola celebrated its first year of relative peace following 27 years of brutal civil war. The peace began on April 4, 2002, with the signing of a cease-fire agreement between the communist Angolan government and the opposing UNITA rebels, who were backed by the United States and South Africa. The agreement was made possible because of the death earlier that year of the rebel's long-time leader, Jonas Savimbi, who was killed by government troops.

Since 1994, the Christian Children's Fund has worked with children in Angola affected by that nation's ongoing civil war. The organization recently released Free to Play in Peace, a collection of children's drawings, poems and accounts of the war gathered during a series of what CCF-Angola Director Mary Daly describes as "searing" interviews.

Most of the children CCF works with have an intimate knowledge of war, Daly says. Many have witnessed the killing of a parent or relative. Daly says CCF's intervention work with Angolan children stresses the importance of expressing the painful, often suppressed emotions associated with these traumas. "In many cases, during the interview the child would say, 'This is the first time I've talked about it, and I'm glad somebody cares,'" Daly says.

Images of tanks, shoulder-fired rocket launchers, fighter jets and other sophisticated weaponry, drawn in the simple strokes of a child, bring home the violence to which Angola's youngest have borne witness. Equally moving are the children's verbal accounts, such as this one from a 10-year-old girl, identified only as T.I., who witnessed her mother's murder:

"The only thing you can do is cry… When I think about it, my head hurts, my stomach hurts and my heart beats fast, like a pain in my chest. When I think about the war, I can't sleep, I have bad dreams, I dream about my mother -- she comes to get me and she takes me on her back."

In putting together the book, Daly says CCF was motivated by a desire "to make sure that people understand that this is what reality is like for children affected by war. Their whole world is turned upside down."

But the book is not just a record of trauma; it's also a declaration of hope for a future without it. "What is remarkable about the book is that the children were so sane and so stable in spite of what happened to them," Daly says.

In drawings and verbal accounts, the children reveal simple dreams for the future, expressing a desire for the normal accoutrements of a peaceful civil society -- buildings, roads, electricity, public schools, arable farmland.

"When you have nothing," says Carlinda Monteiro of CCF-Angola, "it's quite easy to know what you want."

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