Cape Town - One of South Africa’s pre-eminent child trauma experts has called on the government to tighten gun control laws as more and more children fall victim to gangster shoot-outs.
Professor Sebastian van As, head of trauma at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and director of Childsafe South Africa, has been keeping careful records of children with gunshot wounds since 1991.
His research shows that the Firearms Control Act of 2004 helped to bring down gunshot injuries to children by a significant amount – but in recent years the number of children shot has crept up to unacceptable levels.
Van As said that at Red Cross alone – which deals only with children under 12 years old – 14 children had been treated for gunshot wounds this year.
“The worrying thing is that it’s going up again,” he said. “We’ll probably end up with more than 25 this year.”
In one week last month, Van As said, four children with gunshot injuries came into the hospital: one hit in the brain, one in the thigh, one in the abdomen, and an 8-year-old paralysed with a bullet to the spine.
This past weekend, four children were badly injured by stray bullets fired in a stand-off between the Junky Funky Kids and the Americans gang in Parkwood. An 8-year-old boy had a bullet lodged in his skull, while a 15 year old was shot in the spine. Two other teens were hit in the hand and buttocks.
The tragedy, Van As said, was that these children were unintended victims.
“Adults are usually shot on purpose,” he said. “The majority of children are not the intended target. They are caught in the crossfire. Nearly all of them are accidents.”
He said the number of accidental gunshot injuries was a shocking measure of how many bullets were being fired in communities.
Of the 163 young gunshot victims treated there in the decade between 2001 and 2010, eight were intentionally shot by gangsters, while 63 were caught in the crossfire. A further 20 said the shot was accidental, and three had been playing with a gun when they were hit. Thirteen had been intentionally shot by an adult, and four were purposefully shot by another child.
Van As explained that a bullet hitting a child had three major effects.
First, it destroyed everything in its path. In a child’s small body, organs were close together, which meant a high chance the bullet would tear through more than one.
Then, as a bullet travelled through the body, it created a vacuum behind it. Surrounding tissue collapsed into the vacuum in a process called cavitation. “It leaves a very big hole in the body,” Van As said.
Finally, if a bullet hit bone, it fragmented into shrapnel and spread around the wound. “You see little pieces of bone and bullet all through the area.”
Even after medical help had been administered, there was a risk of infection as the body reacted to a foreign object inside it. If the shot travelled through clothing, pieces of clothing stuck inside the body also posed an infection risk.
Even once a young victim had healed from the bullet wound, the implications ricocheted into every area of a child’s life.
“There’s no doubt that a gunshot is a determining factor in a child’s life,” Van As said. “Gunshots do not cause only physical injury – there is also psychological injury. Even children who were not shot themselves, who saw someone get shot, can have nightmares for months.”
His research found the majority of children shot were hit in the street rather than in their homes or schools.
“Kids are nervous to go to and from schools. It changes the whole society.”
At children’s rights organisation Molo Songololo, director Patric Solomons said gang violence was a major cause of youth homicide.
“We see a lot of young people getting caught up in gangs. Particularly young men, teenage boys – there’s conflict among groups for territory and drug-related issues,” he said.
Violence was an “act of survival” for children who grew up in violent households, while substance abuse, alcohol and drugs exacerbated the problem.
But the most disturbing trend this year, Solomons said, was the senselessness of the violence.
“What we have seen in many cases… is there was no clear motive for the violent act,” he said. “It was a matter of an opportunity.”
He said often these young perpetrators were unable to explain why they committed the crime.
“We’re seeing cases where they will commit a crime and then silence the victim or witness by killing them,” Solomons said. “There’s been an increase in violence committed by young people – we’ve seen very violent crimes from sexual violence to murdering and killing because they looked at them the wrong way.”
Meanwhile, Unicef South Africa has launched an End Violence Against Children campaign this month.
Between 2011 and 2012 there were 50 688 registered contact crimes against children, more than half of which were sexual offences, according to the police.
Bathabile Dlamini, minister of social development, said the initiative was about making the “invisible visible”.
“As South Africans, we come from a violent background,” she said. “To show our willingness to change attitudes, we must start with children because they are the most vulnerable.”