Protecting children in war: James Ruddy’s reflections

An orphanage in the aftermath of the Balkans war

Trapped in the shadows of rundown buildings, without the love and care of a family, Ukraine’s orphans are some of the most vulnerable victims caught up in this horrific war. Journalist and war correspondent, James Ruddy, compares the current conflict in Ukraine with those he has witnessed before.

In Sarajevo, in 1993, I saw crying babies and shivering toddlers, their lips blue with cold. They had been hiding for months in the stinking and freezing basement of the Ljubice Ivezic orphanage, as mortar rounds and cannon shells smashed into the roof and adjoining playground. Four years later, in Sierra Leone’s besieged capital, I witnessed the bewildered faces of 32 orphans who had spent four weeks fleeing through dense jungle from drug-crazed rebels who were slaughtering whole villages of innocent people.

As I watch the news from Ukraine, and see images of women and children fleeing across the border, it has been hard not to recall those similar innocent victims of distant wars. The bewildered faces are the same, along with the tears and quivering voices. But so too is the outpouring of help from volunteers offering them food, blankets and homes to share.

The bewildered faces are the same, along with the tears and quivering voices.

That is just how it was, almost three decades ago, when I joined the founders of the newly-created charity, Hope and Homes for Children, in Bosnia. They were determined to save the most vulnerable victims: the orphans. In those cataclysmic days, with missiles and bullets still killing people daily, Mark and Caroline Cook set about returning these children to relative safety.

The bewildered faces are the same, along with the tears and quivering voices.

Later on, they showed the same courage and determination to save hundreds of abandoned children housed in emergency homes in Sierra Leone. The 10-year civil war there had left more than 70,000 dead and created 2.5 million refugees. Such huge figures are difficult to visualise – especially when we remind ourselves that each one represents an individual human being, many of them young children. Each one had family and friends and hopes and dreams for the future.

Among the many stories of hope from that period was that of Tenneh, the five-year-old girl we brought to England from Freetown to have a rifle bullet removed, successfully, from her brain. And Issah, who had been badly burned by rebels before we airlifted him for life-changing plastic surgery in Norwich.

Tenneh, profoundly deaf and also blind in one eye, was a quiet and dignified child who was always amazed at the growing pile of teddies that people left for her. Issah, heavily burned on his face, chest and arms, also told of his amazement at the kindness he was being shown, far removed from the brutal year he had spent as a load-bearing slave of a rebel group.

It was the same courage and determination that saved hundreds of abandoned children who were housed in emergency homes in Sierra Leone.

And so it is now for the children of Ukraine. All of them were leading normal lives at the beginning of last week: playing with friends, learning at schools, and eating regular meals. Now all that is over. Many are left hiding in basements, their lives on pause, as the sounds of war grow ever stronger. Others are fleeing along icy roads, or standing on chaotic train platforms as their frightened mothers hope they can take them to safety.

But even more tragic are those 100,000 children trapped in Ukraine’s 600 orphanages, without a loving parent’s hand to hold or a reassuring voice to calm their tears. 

Along with Mark and Caroline, I have seen the miserable coldness of such orphanages across Europe and Africa. All are slightly varied but, fundamentally, have the same dire look. In all of them, children are abandoned to dingy dormitories with paid staff providing just the basics to keep them alive.

I have seen the miserable coldness of such orphanages across Europe and Africa

That is why Hope and Homes for Children has set itself the target of closing all such institutions worldwide – and has already closed so many, releasing the children back into the loving arms of traced extended family and adoptive parents.

But in wars, like the one currently raging in Ukraine, the emergency priority now is in keeping such children safe and supporting those who will end up being orphaned and abandoned among the increasing flood of victims and refugees. 

If you, like me, have been moved by the deeply depressing scenes on your television screen, please help the charity to help the helpless.