OPINION | Displaced children: The world has still not learnt any lessons

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Sudanese refugee children in the Treguine camp. (Amaury Hauchard, AFP)
Sudanese refugee children in the Treguine camp. (Amaury Hauchard, AFP)

Despite previous lessons of children being displaced and ignored in times of crisis, it is still happening now as the world deals with Covid-19, writes Marga Diederichs.

In 2020, a devastating pandemic hit the world.

As highlighted by the media and on social media, the overwhelming impact of Covid-19 was, in most instances, effectively communicated to captive and empathetic audiences worldwide.

But, as in times of war, there is a marginalised group whose suffering went unnoticed.

The plight of displaced, unaccompanied and orphaned child refugees disappeared in the deluge of statistics. These are children who fled their homes and countries from conflicts and persecutions. They were deprived of their material possessions and lost their families and loved ones. Their narratives and history may well also disappear in the records of a selective political memory – as did the narratives of the Wolfskinder of the Second World War.

READ | Forced separation of refugee children from their parents can have devastating long-term consequences

In Prussian Nights – a poem by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who served as a captain in the Soviet Red Army during the Second World War – Solzhenitsyn described the Red Army's march across East Prussia in 1945 and the atrocities committed by the soldiers.

"It's all come down to simple phrases: Do not forget! Do not forgive!" he wrote.

The Russian soldiers' acts of brutality, rape and murder were influenced by a desire for revenge for crimes committed by the Nazis during the invasion of the Soviet Union – an eye for an eye.

Ignored history

In the wake of retribution, the testimonies and statistics of a group of children called the Wolfskinder – who witnessed and lived through these acts of violence – went unnoticed and for decades their fate and existence were ignored by historians.

In the late summer of 1944, Nazi authorities strictly forbade the evacuation of civilians.

The population of East Prussia then consisted mainly of women, children and the elderly. The men were still fighting on the battlefields.

Many Germans believed in Hitler's propaganda of an imminent "End Zieg" and were convinced the Nazis would soon win the war. But in 1945, the Red Army broke through German lines and the forced evacuation of East Prussia began.

Huge numbers of civilians went missing or were killed, trying to escape. Others died of hunger and disease. This left thousands of children orphaned and destitute. They were forced to hide in the unforgiving forests, isolated from humanity and, like hungry wolves, banded together in order to survive, in constant fear of the Soviet soldiers. They were named the Wolfskinder (wolf children).

These children went on food-scrounging trips into neighbouring Lithuania. The rural Lithuanian farmers called them vokietukai (little Germans) and sometimes gave them food and shelter in exchange for labour but in most cases, dogs were sent to chase them away.

Thousands of these children were sent to Soviet orphanages run by military administration if they were caught. Many died of starvation and disease.

No name, no language, no identity

The lucky ones found temporarily shelter with Lithuanians who secretly took them in and cared for them as long as they provided labour. They had to learn to speak Lithuanian. Some of the younger ones were adopted and remained on Lithuanian farms permanently, but exact statistics are not available. The total number of wolf children can only be estimated.  Unconfirmed statistics say about 25 000 of them roamed the woods and swamps of East Prussia and Lithuania after 1945.

As the Lithuanians were forbidden from taking in these "fascist children", they were hidden from neighbours and authorities, fearing punishment for assisting the enemy's children. The children were given new identities and Lithuanian names to disguise their German origin.

For decades they disappeared behind the Iron Curtain and were untraceable. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union the fate of the Wolfskinder became known to the world. 

Politicians' failure

For a long time, politicians nevertheless ignored the wolf children's history and narratives. Their existence became an uncomfortable truth in post-war Germany.

In the summer of 2000, the German Bundestag decided to pay damages to Second World War forced labourers, mainly from Eastern European countries. Members of the Wolfskinder group, however, once again failed to be acknowledged.

Germany's Federal Office of Administration stated consistently that the Wolfskinder had forgone their claim to German citizenship when they left East Prussia. The war orphans were also denied German pensions. Those who still wanted to become German citizens had to go through a lengthy and complicated naturalisation and if any of the last survivors wished to file a claim for damages, they had to do so by the end of 2016.

In 2008, it was decided that the Wolfskinder living in Lithuania could get a small additional pension. Today, there is only a small number left living in Lithuania – most of them too old to remember.

'The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war'

According to Unicef statistics, more than 642 000 refugee or displaced children currently live in South Africa – smuggled migrants and unaccompanied and separated minors. Many of them have no voices, no documents, no proof of existence and, as such, they become victims of trafficking and abuse.

READ | Opinion: Standing with refugees during these challenging times

Currently the care and protection of unaccompanied and separated migrant children are determined by the courts in South Africa. They are sometimes placed in Child and Youth Care Centres (CYCC) or in temporary community-based foster care. Sometimes they just disappear unnoticed.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said:

…Meanwhile, armed conflict rages on around the world. The most vulnerable – women and children, people with disabilities, the marginalised and the displaced – pay the highest price. They are also at the highest risk of suffering devastating losses from Covid-19. Let's not forget that in war-ravaged countries, health systems have collapsed… Refugees and others displaced by violent conflict are doubly vulnerable. The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.

There are more displaced children today than at any time in the history of the world.

It is time to remember Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's words: "Do not forget! Do not forgive!"

- Marga Diederichs is the owner of The Diplomat. She writes in her personal capacity.

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