A community member explained: Children run when they hear a helicopter, the young ones always wet themselves. They know about bombing out here.
Whereas monsters, demons and ghosts normally occupy the imaginations of the young, in conflict areas fear takes recognizable forms in their drawings. Boys and girls in MSF programmes usually incorporate elements associated with the conflict in their artwork, like weaponry, combat helicopters, or descriptions of massacres. MSF staff have seen images of canoes loaded with lifeless bodies, the blood of butchered farm animals mixing with human blood, and figures on bended knees in front of a gun pleading for their lives.
Children often identify themselves with armed group members, and their games tend to relate to the abnormal situations they witness. Teachers and mothers have observed important behavioural changes. Many children show sadness or withdrawal or aggressive attitudes towards other children. Many have problems at school.
A lack of concentration and ability to memorize, emotional dependency, and problems adapting to the school rhythm are frequently seen. Medical professionals in daily contact with children living in this environment mention their nightmares and anxiety.
One 10-year-old told MSF: "I don't like this place... there are so many bodies in the river."
Their language expresses the violent acts they have witnessed or so frequently heard about. "I am going to cut your throat and tear out your eyes." Or, "I'm going to cut you into pieces and throw you in the river."
Children are learning to identify themselves within the conflict, where both fear and admiration leaves only one certainty; that to be anyone in this life you will have to be one of those on the "strongest side".
SURVIVAL AND FLIGHT
Rural communities set within a violent environment learn to live with fluctuating levels of violence and threats. Yet ultimately, the pressure becomes too intense and they flee. Much displacement comes after targeted attacks on individuals, their families or community:
We were taken somewhere and they started to threaten us and talk about chainsaws. After a while they let us go. I grabbed my kids and we left immediately for another town. We left only with the clothes we were wearing; we walked all-night and part of the day, and the kids asking for food...
— Mother from a rural community