If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children. —Mahatma Gandhi
Of the many horrific scenes of terror and destruction in Ukraine, the one I carry in my heart is the television video of a little boy in a striped jacket crying and walking alone as people flee down a road. Where is his family? Will someone help him? What is his future?
We all are horrified to witness the invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces. The war is happening because of the determination of one man who has decided that his nation will become an empire again. Russia is a large and powerful nation and for many years it controlled the land and people of other nations in eastern Europe. That repressive Soviet empire gradually fell apart as nations regained control of their freedom. Now the president of Russia is laying waste to the country of Ukraine as the first part of an epic plan to rebuild the Soviet empire through war in Europe again.
Several years ago, I read a series of novels set in the time of World War I. The novels describe the conditions in which people, both soldiers and civilians, endure the reality of wartime. A young man named Joseph is an army chaplain attached to medical stations behind the trenches. He comforts the dying and listens to the fears of the soldiers, some as young as age sixteen. As priest and chaplain, he lives the sorrows of war, which seem so far away from the peace of God.
Now, over one hundred years later, we are seeing those same realities vividly reported to us through television: fear and courage, terror and compassion, the power to kill and the struggles to save. Many people are praying, hoping that God’s mercy will somehow end their suffering. When we pray to God for peace, we pray for an end to all wars—but peace is much more than the absence of war.
We are praying for an end to aggression, brutality, and destruction. We are praying for the human right to dignity, self-determination, and security. We want peaceful lives for children in their homes and schools, where they will learn that love and kindness are blessings which can overcome hatred and cruelty.
Children in Ukraine try to play in bomb shelters until they hear the loud explosions and shout, “Bombs, bombs!” They know the sounds and dangers above them. The children are traumatized. They try to behave normally, but they feel everything. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that millions of children have fled Ukraine, some with mothers but some alone. Their families are split apart because their fathers are required to remain in the country to fight.
The compassion of neighbours and strangers has been courageous. The children have few clothes and one or two precious toys. Some shelters have seen the trauma in the children and asked local doctors and counsellors to help them. One psychiatrist has already noted signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in refugee children. Many of these children will not forget the terrifying memories for the rest of their lives.
I lost track of the little boy in the striped jacket. I do not know if his family found him or kind strangers helped him to safety away from the terror. In faraway Canada, I hope and pray that he is comforted now and that he will grow up to be a man of peace for children in Ukraine and around the world.
There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want, and that they grow up in peace. —Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations