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close this bookThe Reintegration of War-Affected Youth: The Experience of Mozambique (International Labour Organization, 1997, 52 p.)
close this folder2. Background: The impact of armed conflict on youth in Mozambique
View the document2.1. The long years of war
View the document2.2. The legacy of the conflict

2.1. The long years of war

Shortly after independence was achieved in 1975, Mozambicans became embroiled in a savage internal struggle between the government of FRELIMO1 and the armed opposition group of RENAMO.2 The struggle was to last 16 years and to cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Against this backdrop of savagery, millions of children and youth have grown up in Mozambique knowing little else but the horrors of war. For Mozambican youth living - and dying - in the midst of armed conflict, the choices were clear: fight; flee; or risk life, limb and liberty trying to eke out a meagre existence amid the minefields and madness.

1 Frente de Liberta de Mozambique.

2 Resisten Nacional de Mozambique.

Thousands of youth, including an unknown number of young women, joined the armed forces of government or opposition and many became active participants in the conflict. Some did so willingly, while others were pressed into service, sometimes at the barrel of a gun. It has been reported that in some instances, children were abducted and then forced to kill or torture friends or even family to ensure that their links with the community were completely broken.

Once enrolled, life in the army tended to be harsh: discipline was frequently merciless, punishment severe. Thus, in addition to the threat of death or injury fighting in the front line, recruits ran the frequent risk of physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their own side. In the bitterness of the struggle for supremacy, appalling atrocities were committed against civilians and other soldiers alike. The impact of abuses of the fundamental norms of humanity will take decades to expunge from the collective psyche of all Mozambicans, both young and old. Moreover, a generation of young soldiers were deprived of access to basic education and health care.

As the war continued and hopes of peace withered with the untended crops, millions of Mozambicans fled into neighbouring Malawi, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. As refugees, daily life was difficult, but not impossible. Adequate schooling and health care was provided through the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and, in addition to Portuguese, many young Mozambican refugees were able to learn English in their countries of asylum. But being cut off from their homes and cultural heritages and frequently dependent on external aid, the young tended to be deprived of instruction in the life and work skills that are traditionally passed down from their parents. Girls became heads of households at increasingly younger ages and, charged with the responsibility of bringing up even younger siblings, themselves lost the chance of receiving an education.

Especially vulnerable were the internally displaced in Mozambique, bereft of the entitlement to protection and care accorded to refugees under international law, and without the benefit of an international agency mandated specifically to watch over their rights and interests. Inadequate food security; vulnerability to attack, forced recruitment, physical and sexual abuse and the dangers of land mines; and social and economic instability were the frequent realities for the millions of children and youth displaced within Mozambique. As is seen below, their situation in post-conflict Mozambique remains precarious.

The impact of armed conflict on Mozambican social infrastructure was equally dramatic. War destroyed more than 40 per cent of Mozambique's health centres between 1982 and 1986 and left two-thirds of the country's 2 million primary school age children without classrooms.3

3 UNICEF, State of the world's children 1996, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Dec. 1995.

Between 1980 and 1988, the lack of food, safe drinking water and adequate health care in war zones contributed to an estimated 490,000 child deaths in Mozambique.1

1 ibid.