Around the world, millions of children are the unheard voices of war. And the horrors they witness today will inform the adults they become tomorrow. Will they grow up to be the next leaders, teachers, freedom fighters or terrorists?
Children of Conflict is a four-part series which explores the lives of children whose lives are blighted by growing up in conflict zones. Nadene Ghouri goes in search of what the past has created and what the future holds for these young people.
She travels to Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lebanon but begins her journey in Gaza, where she meets children growing up in an environment of frequent violence and constant economic depression.
One of the World's biggest news stories, in one of the smallest and most claustrophobic strips of land on earth. Gaza is a virtual prison with no way in and hardly any way out.
In an exclusive story, we talk to the grandchildren of Fatima Al Najar – the oldest female Palestinian suicide bomber. Bewildered and grieving for their grandmother, the children say all they want to do is to follow suit and become 'martyrs' themselves.
"I want to do the same. And I will recruit the other children of this town for martyrdom," says 14 year old Fatima. When she grows up she wants to study chemistry and engineering at university. "That's if I don't become a martyr first," she says.
Her views are contrasted with another girl, 13 year old Rana, who dreams of being a journalist "so I can tell people how we suffer here. I am a child, I know what death means, I know what war means, I know what blood means. Me and all the children here know what it means".
Or Tehal, just 10 years old – and who wants to be the first female Palestinian president.
Her three wishes? To clean up the mess left behind by Israeli bulldozers, to give children their rights "because they have no rights here" and finally, "to build a new Gaza".
The town of Qana has become synonomous with Lebanon's tragedy. Believed to be the site where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine, the town has earned infamy for two massacres of children 10 years apart. The first attack came in 1996, when Israel bombed a UN base sheltering 800 people – most of them children. Over 100 children were killed or maimed.
The second massacre was during last year's war on Lebanon. A rocket hit a house where several families had taken shelter in the basement. It collapsed – burying the children in rubble. Seventeen were killed. The images of children being carried from the rubble, looking as though they were sleeping, horrified the world.
The film goes back to find the survivors of the first massacre - now teenagers – to find that although most of them have rebuilt their lives, last summer's slaughter devastated them emotionally. And there are extraordinary parallels between the two stories.
In 1996, three year old Hussein Belhas was believed dead, and was put in a morgue freezer. Remarkably, he was discovered alive and was rescued. Now 13, a composed Hussein says: "I am the boy who died, and then came back to life. This was my destiny." Still suffering horribly from his injuries (his leg was blown off at the kneecap and has grown back as a twisted stick), Hussein will require medical treatment for the rest of his life: "When I try to play football, it hurts me. I stay awake all night with the pain."
His truly incredible story sits alongside that of Hasan Shalhoub, just four years old. In the massacre of 2006, Hasan lost his sister Zeinab, who was seven. Also believed dead, Hasan was left over-night in a makeshift morgue. "In the morning I woke up. I started talking to a little girl next to me, but she turned out to be dead. Then I asked for my mother."
Too young to fully realise the extent of his dramatic escape, Hasan says: "I was only injured a little bit in my head. I am fine now."
Afghanistan is said to be the land where God only comes to weep. A place of wild beauty and extreme cruelty, it seems never to have known peace.
After the civil war of the 1980s, two-thirds of the population were either dead or refugees. And after the curse of the Taliban, a new hopelessness descended on the country.
Although Afghan children don't know why any of these wars happened, they know they have been born into a devastated land.
Misery, poverty, cold and never-ending internal conflict - this is their lot. The film looks at the many ways children are compelled to work in order to help their families to survive, and at the terrible conditions they are forced to endure.
Few play activities for children exist, and with no sewage or drainage system in Kabul (population 3.5m), many of their play areas double as open-air toilets.
Signs of war damage abound, and the hospitals bear witness to the daily admission of children maimed by the unexploded ordnance which has littered the fields and valleys of Afghanistan for decades.
The orphanage outside Kabul provides food and shelter for the parentless kids, and though there's no future to look forward to, at least it's warm.
| Democratic Republic of Congo
The film goes inside the minds of the Congolese child soldiers. What makes an 11 year old child capable of awful brutality? "I saw my father die, then they killed my aunt. I didn't want to die by machete at home. That's a pointless death. So I decided to join the militia," says 13 year old Eric.
Responsible for the killings of thousands of innocent lives, the feared child militias of the DRC tell how their childhood was lost. Victims of a war no one understands, brutalised by their commanders who turned them into armed brigands, the children became murderers and rapists in a "kill or be killed" conflict.
For some there is hope. Fourteen year old Jolie describes how she preferred a machete to a gun in battle: "A gun can run out of bullets. A machete is safer if you want to stay alive." She calmly recalls how she first killed a man: "I hacked off his head and hands."
But now she has changed her view. Holding her new baby in her arms she says: "This child will never join a militia. His father was killed in battle. And I saw too much suffering myself. What was it for? Nothing."
For others, like Eric, there is no way back to the normal world. Unable to tell his parents the truth about those he killed and unwelcome in his village he says: "At home I am nothing, but in the militia I had power and money. I want to go back to the bush."
This four part series first aired in 2007.
Source: Al Jazeera