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children in war


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- Sinister cults
- Intervention in Kosovo
- Children in war
- Collective amnesia
- Catching them young
- Alex Comfort

For too long we have given ground to spurious claims that the involvement of children in armed conflict is regrettable but inevitable. It is not. Children are regularly caught up in conflict because of conscious and deliberate decisions made by adults.’
Graça Machel, ‘The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children’, report to United Nations General Assembly, 1996


In today’s wars and armed conflicts, more than 90 per cent of casualties are civilians – half of them children. This is no accident: children are now deliberately targeted, their communities are devastated, and they are coerced into becoming soldiers.’

K wasn’t yet 15 years old when she was forcibly abducted by rebel soldiers, at night, from her home. She was made to kill a boy who tried to escape from the rebels. She saw another boy hacked to death for not reporting his friend’s successful escape. When she dropped a water jar, she was beaten. She was trained to be a soldier – in just over a month – and then sent to fight against the government army. Later she was able to talk to Amnesty International, and asked them to do something to help:

‘I would like to give you a message. Please do your best to tell the world what is happening to us, the children. So that other children don’t have to pass through this violence.’

S, another young girl abducted by soldiers, also knew all about ‘this violence’: ‘One boy tried to escape, but he was caught... His hands were tied, and then they made us, the other new captives, kill him with a stick. I felt sick. I knew this boy from before. We were from the same village. I refused to kill him and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it. The boy was asking me, “Why are you doing this?” I said I had no choice. After we killed him, they made us smear his blood on our arms... They said we had to do this so we would not fear death and so we would not try to escape. . . I still dream about the boy from my village who I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me and saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying.’

B, aged 14, said she had gone to fetch vegetables from the garden in the early morning. ‘Suddenly I was surrounded by about fifty rebels. They arrested me and started beating me terribly. They wanted me to walk them to my home, but I was refusing. Finally I walked them to my home. We went there and collected my clothes. There, they killed my mother. They made me go, leaving behind my little brother and two little sisters. I was trying to explain that I could not leave behind the children because they were too young to fend for themselves. I was resisting. Then they started beating me until I became unconscious.’

The rebel soldiers who abducted K, S and B were from the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been fighting Ugandan government forces since its foundation in 1987 and is notorious for its abuse of children. But Uganda was already ravaged by civil war with other insurgent groups, since independence in 1962. The National Resistance Army (NRA) took power in 1986; described as highly disciplined, it was nevertheless estimated to have 3000 soldiers under 16, five hundred of them girls. The NRA was resisted by the National Liberation Army (UNLA), known for its violence and abuse of human rights.

J was 13 when he witnessed UNLA soldiers massacring over a dozen people in his Ugandan village. ‘I know these people they killed. This one, when I would come home from school and I be hungry, he would give me food. Now I will remember. Those men who killed my friend, they should be killed.’

H was only 9 when UNLA soldiers killed his parents. ‘The men who kill my mother, they make me angry... If I find them, I kill.’

A Ugandan mother said sadly: ‘Once a child has joined the rebel group, such a child cannot listen to what you tell him. In fact, you then become enemies, and they don’t even come home. The community has been accusing and harassing the parents of the rebels, claiming that they are benefiting from their sons in terms of money, yet in most cases parents are innocent, as boys don’t even step home; you wouldn’t know whether they are alive or dead’.

In Liberia at the end of 1989 the National Patriotic Front (NPFL) attempted to overthrow the government. The country rapidly descended into civil war, with at least eight tribal factions. A peace-keeping force led by Nigerian troops was sucked into the conflict. The war was noted for its involvement of children as fighters. Eyewitness accounts of a massacre of 500 refugees by a group of teenage fighters describe how a five-year-old boy was beheaded, with his parents forced to watch and applaud.

U was about 11 when five soldiers came to his house late at night. ‘My dad went to the door and asked who it was. They said “We are friends and want to tell you about something”. My dad said, “Let it be in the morning”. Then the soldiers broke the door down and came in. My mother came running. My sister was sound asleep and I was hiding behind a cushion. The soldiers tied up my mother and father, and said, “Do you have any money here?” They said no, and the soldiers said “You are lying. You Mano and Gio people are dogs, but we will get rid of you one by one.” My parents were screaming. The soldiers took out their knives and beheaded them. Then they ran away. I woke my sister up and we ran to our neighbour’s house. I didn’t see my parents again until they were put into the ground.’

A (13) joined one army ‘to protect myself’ against another. K, also 13, joined up ‘for revenge, because my papa was killed’. W, 14, thought he could protect his family, and also ‘I wanted to fight for my country’. B, 14, saw his parents beaten up; and ‘besides, there wasn’t any food. If I joined I could get food for my family, at least a bag of rice.’

Anna, president of a women’s organisation in Liberia, said: ‘Most of the young boys joined the rebels, which is very sad. Some of them were compelled to, because in their areas you either had to join or they killed you. So they took up guns and as soon as they had found a way of running away, they came back to society. But others deliberately joined and stayed on. As for girls, some of them joined because they were looking for food, others because they were looking for husbands, others because they had no choice.’

It was indeed not always a matter of choice. B, captured by rebel opposition troops, was tortured by having his elbows tied behind his back until his rib cage began to separate. ‘They laid me down and told me to look at the sun. I stayed there the whole day. I was begging them to loosen me. They said they would if I agreed to join them. So I agreed, because I did not want to die.’ But there are yet other inducements for children to join the fighting in war-torn regions. Again in Liberia, a UN officer observed, ‘Lots of children are used at checkpoints. Manning a checkpoint gives a kid power and influence, even if he’s only twelve years old. What he knows is that he is in power and has someone to command and can kill someone. Boys at checkpoints have killed people for no reason at all. Their leaders don’t take care of them; kids are available and it’s easy to give them a clear understanding of who is the enemy, that’s all the leaders care.’

A, 13, told of something else: ‘They gave me pills that made me crazy. When the craziness got in my head, I beat people and hurt them till they bled. When the craziness got out of my head I felt guilty.’ The use of drugs as stimulants for child fighters is reported worldwide.

Not only in Uganda and Liberia but throughout Africa’s battlegrounds there are children who fight. Children like T, who went to war in the Sudan (civil war since 1983) when he was eleven: the Kalashnikov he was given to carry and use was bigger than he was. To prove his worthiness he had to execute a man captured from the other side. Children like A in Mozambique, where sixteen years of vicious warfare ended in 1992: when the Mozambique Resistance abducted A, they tied his hands behind his back, put a 50 kilo bag of stolen food on his head, and forced him to march like that for two days. ‘The bandits killed my mother, and my brothers, too. They took me to their base camp. Yes, I was with the bandits. I had a gun. The chief taught me to use it. He beat me up. I had a gun to kill. I killed people and soldiers. I didn’t like it. I killed. I killed.’

‘There is simply no excuse, no acceptable argument for arming children,’ says Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Why is it done?

Many child fighters are very young and are drawn into fighting for many mixed reasons: fear, poverty, revenge, loss of family, desperation, hunger – and the desire to be needed and, in some way, looked after, even if the only family a war orphan may now know is a weary and uncaring rebel platoon. Armies and paramilitary groups find children useful in war not least because children do what they are told; and even though what the soldiers tell them to do has little to do with a normal childhood. Often fearless in the way that the young can be, these commandeered children are sent ahead to scout for ambushes and minefields or to draw enemy fire – learning the hard way, maimed or killed; for the soldiers these children are expendable and easily replaced. Children have the advantage of being small and agile; they are ideal for espionage and communications; they are useful servants and slaves. And, effectively wielding lightweight modern rifles, they learn to kill.

In Burma, a former child soldier said: ‘I was in the front lines the whole time. I used to be assigned to plant mines in areas the enemy passed through. They used us for reconnaissance and other things like that, because if you’re a child the enemy doesn’t notice you much; nor do the villagers.’

Another Burmese described how ‘we were leaving school at the end of the day, and the soldiers surrounded the school. There were about fifty of us, 15, 16, 17 years old, and we were all afraid of the soldiers. Our teachers all ran away in fear. Everything was in chaos. We were all terrified, and we couldn’t even call out to them to let us go, because we were so scared’.

Another boy explained his work: ‘My job was to run out into the killing fields’ (no man’s land) ‘and grab weapons, watches, wallets and any ammunition from the dead soldiers, and bring it all back. This was difficult, as the enemy could see you and pick you off as you ran out and back again. I was given this job because I was the smallest.’ Punishments were routine and brutal: ‘Sometimes when I fell asleep when I was on sentry duty, I was beaten by my corporal. He beat me like a dog, like I was an animal, not a human being’.

In Lebanon and Sri Lanka particularly, children have been used for suicide missions. ‘They are more physically suited for carrying out such operations and are better disposed to it mentally’, said one Lebanese report.

Indeed, other than the sense of having a group to belong to, or a better supply of food, or, for a time, a cause, the experiences of child soldiers can never be less than distressing, bitter and brutalising.

In Colombia, where civilians are the victims of a decades-long armed conflict between the army, left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups known for their brutality, children have been considered good recruits. ‘To calm our nerves,’ recalled one, ‘we used to drink gunpowder in milk. If you take it by itself it gives you a headache. With the gunpowder you stay energetic, longing for the troops to pass in front of you so that you can kill them’.

E was recruited into the Guatemalan army (civil war lasting well over 20 years began in 1968) when he was 14. ‘The army was a nightmare. We suffered greatly from the cruel treatment we received. We were constantly beaten, mostly for no reason at all, just to keep us in a state of terror. I still have a scar on my lip and sharp pains in my stomach from being brutally kicked by the older soldiers. The food was scarce, and they made us walk with heavy loads, much too heavy for our small and malnourished bodies. They forced me to learn how to fight the enemy, in a war that I didn’t understand why was being fought.’ In Guatemala children were used especially for detecting explosive weapons such as bombs and mines.

Girl combatants everywhere in particular risk abuse. A former girl soldier in Honduras described how she was forced to have sex with the men, as they put it, ‘to alleviate their sadness’. She had an abortion. ‘It was not my decision. I could not decide on that. They decided. Hadn’t I handed over my entire life? Had I not undertaken a commitment to permanent obedience and discipline? There is a great pain in my being when I recall all these things, principally because with time I have come to understand that to be a woman in any group was always a disadvantage. In spite of my commitment, they abused me, they trampled my human dignity. And above all they did not understand that I was a child and that I had rights.’

Most images of child soldiers that are made public come from Africa, Asia and Latin America, and sometimes from the Middle East. But some teenage soldiers may come from a neighbourhood near you: regular armies in the West recruit young people as career soldiers who may be sent into action before they are 18 (as the UK army routinely does).

And certainly Europe has experience of unofficial child soldiers. In Kosovo, a 14-year-old girl said: ‘I’m not afraid. We are prepared to fight. We don’t do the cooking here, we fight alongside our friends’.

E ,16, came from the United States to fight for the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army. She said: ‘Why should I look forward to living when my sisters are being raped and when children are dying of starvation in their mother’s arms? I’ll die happy if the first bullet kills me. I will die for the freedom of Kosovo.’ Her father had been with the KLA since early 1998.

It’s not known whether the Yugoslav armed forces in Kosovo included minors, but there’s evidence to suggest that Serb paramilitary forces did. One 15-year-old ethnic Serb from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia testified: ‘I live in a village near Skopje, but for the last five months I’ve been in Nis (Serbia) and I work there. I prepare the weapons, I write reports from the field and I cook. I work for the Serb Tigers. There are 100 of us from Macedonia but we are all Serbs’.

The KLA, for its part, recruited in a number of countries. It’s estimated that several hundred ethnic Albanian children from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia joined the KLA following recruitment announcements on television and promises of money in exchange for their services. The majority were boys but there were also girls. A 16-year-old boy said: ‘I’m Albanian. I will join the KLA – these are my brothers and my sisters. We must try to achieve our big dream: Great Albania. Three months ago, I was in the camps, but now I’m here in Skopje asking other people to join with me’.

At the end of the conflict in Kosovo, British soldiers from the KFOR peacekeeping force found (at the Lipljan Agricultural School, a Serb school south of Pristina) two classrooms which had been used to teach children about warfare. Display cabinets contained slides showing how to booby-trap books, cigarette packets and hay bales, and drawings were also found including diagrams on how to find and attack a tank’s weak spots and how to set a mine beneath the ground or in long grass.

All these words come from the lips of children who were fighters, and as such the victims of war; but all children who have experienced war at first hand are its victims too. An aid worker in Kosovo told a not unusual story:

‘While attending to a woman who had been severely wounded, a nine-year old girl called to the doctors. She was not able to speak clearly due to emotion and would not look the doctors in the face. She made the following statement. “I saw his brain in the grass and she [her mother] is lying to me [saying her father is still alive]. If you give me some water to drink and some bread maybe I will tell you how they killed my father and my grandfather and put my home on fire. I can’t go back there. We have slept three nights in the woods. We did not eat or drink. I’m cold. I’ll never see my father any more. I’ll never have a home. I just want to die. My village doesn’t exist any more. My school is burned. My brother is missing. I want to die.” ‘

In Rwanda: ‘The Interahamwe came to our house and they asked all who are inyenzi [cockroaches] to step outside. I followed my parents and brothers and sisters out into the fields at the back and we ran. But they ran fast and caught us and they killed my family members and they thought they had killed me too. They hit me with the machetes and clubs and then threw all the bodies together so that I was lying under my mother who was dead. But I was not dead.’

In Colombia: ‘They grabbed me and threw me on the floor, Papi also. Then they made us stand up. I told them this was my Papi and they shouldn’t harm him or me because there were lots of young children and if they killed my Papi I would be left to care for them alone. They told me I should go home and I started out for the house immediately. They killed Papi soon after.’

In Sudan: ‘When I was in Sudan I heard the sound of guns. When I am asleep, they come into my head like a dream or cinema. That is my suffering.’ ‘People were shot, and I saw it. Some of these things are often in my mind. Some of them always. ‘ ‘I saw fighting. People were being killed. I knew many of the people who were killed, my relatives. I remember the sound of infants crying, and airplanes, and people screaming. I also hear it during the day. I cannot get rid of these memories. I used to learn in school, but it is so terrible that because of these memories and sounds, I cannot learn at school now.’

The child soldiers themselves have other images to face. After a month in a camp in Thailand, a 15-year-old who had been a Khmer Rouge cadre for four years began hearing two voices ‘arguing with each other inside my head’. The first was the voice of a Khmer Rouge leader who was angry because the boy deserted; the second, that of a Buddhist priest who ‘says even when I die I will be punished for what I have done’. An observer of such traumatised Cambodian boys noted: ‘It was their rediscovery of killing as a moral transgression that seemed to prompt these children’s mental suffering.’

A UN observer in Liberia said: ‘Reintegration is a problem, but we can make it work. We have lots of very violent kids to contend with, but they can communicate and they can learn to forget the violent part of themselves. They are no different from our own children except that they have gone through a very difficult phase of life.’

No-one is under any illusion that children can emerge from war undamaged. Where there are resources and opportunities, something is being done to help rehabilitate such children. The first priority is to revive their sense of family, either by reunion with relatives or, more often, integration into adoptive families and supportive communities. Education is also of primary importance, including learning practical and creative skills. UNICEF and other organisations are training teachers and health care workers – the professionals with whom the children have most contact – in simple therapeutic techniques to help the children to understand, face and overcome the traumas they have experienced.

An 11-year old Sudanese boy said: ‘It is better to understand the problems we had. We cannot forget.

Margaret Melicharova


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