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Uniting Children During War: Sawa-UNICEF in Lebanon

Amal Dibo

Toward the end of Lebanon's long civil war, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reacted to a new crisis with a simple but effective way to reach the children, in spite of the fighting-a magazine, called Sawa (meaning "together" in Arabic). It bridged the front lines and the ethnic divides with useful educational tools and a message of peace, understanding, reconciliation, and hope. Building on the success of Sawa, UNICEF also organized a successful summer peace camp program in Lebanon.

As if fourteen years of civil war had not been traumatic enough, in March 1989 the most densely populated areas of Beirut were subjected to an onslaught of rocket and artillery fire that was to continue intermittently, for more than a year. Beirut's war-weary citizens retreated with regularity to the cellars and bomb shelters, sometimes for weeks at a time. What little semblance of normality remained was shattered. Businesses shut their doors and 60 percent of Lebanon's schools were closed.

During the war years, UNICEF offered emergency relief assistance, health care and medicine, and educational programs in Lebanon. With its active, high-profile presence, UNICEF had become an experienced, trusted, and well-known organization, capable of acting quickly and effectively in a crisis, and even able to extend its programs to all regions of Lebanon despite the country's fragmentation along territorial lines. With the renewed outbreak of violence in 1989, traditional educational assistance was rendered impossible. The UNICEF staff was increasingly frustrated by the appalling conditions facing children and their own inability to do something for them in the shelters.

Most of the UNICEF programs in the areas of health care brought UNICEF into contact with the parents, rather than the children. The challenge was to find a way to reach children in spite of the fighting, to give them a chance to learn and play wherever they were-to make up for the lack of schooling, to help young people to deal with their day-to-day hardships and fill the long, tedious hours in the dim lights of the bomb shelters. What UNICEF wanted was to find some way to bring them together when forces beyond their control were driving them further and further apart.

One day, literally as the shells were raining down on the city, UNICEF's representative in Lebanon, André Roberfroid, his wife, and UNICEF staff members Anna Mansour and the author started throwing around ideas during a brainstorming session in the UNICEF cellar where they had gathered to wait out the artillery battle. It was during that brainstorming session that the idea emerged to publish a children's magazine and use it as an educational tool.