“Human rights groups say there are girls and boys under 15 who fight in 37 of the world’s 55 continuing or just-ended wars; more than 300-thousand under the age of 18 are forced into combat…” Voice of America reports in Child Soldiers Tell Their Stories: What they did to survive – 2003-09-04.
Child soldiers can be seen in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.
Why children are recruited?
Why are children, a weaker force, recruited in such big numbers by armed groups during the civil wars? This is a question answered in different ways.
Roméo Dallaire, Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, “they are viewed as expendable, replaceable”.
They are cheap to maintain and of course more easily moldable than adults. Their identities and personalities are still being formed. They can be controlled or influenced by adults either using clever tactics or simply by the use of fear and power.
During the situation of constant war, many children lose their families and parents.
“[Such lost children]… transfer loyalty to another adult especially the one who holds the power of reward and punishment. They can be psychologically manipulated through a deliberate programme of starvation, thirst, fatigue, voodoo, indoctrination, beatings, the use of drugs and alcohol, and even abuse to render them compliant to the new norms of child soldiering,” writes Michael Wessells, a professor at Columbia University in the Program on Forced Migration and Health, in his book Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection.
How children are forced to work for armed groups?
In most cases, children are forced to work for the armed after the abduction. No matter how strong families try to keep their children safe, the armed groups can make it happen in many ways.
One child from Sierra Leone narrated: “My dad and I were planting rice and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) came and captured us. Dad begged the soldiers to release me, but they insisted… Dad trailed them since he couldn’t let me go… So they killed my dad,” Michael Wessells wrote in his book.
Hunger, poverty even abuse at home is also an important factor that pulls children to join hands with force groups. Sometimes they are given rewards or little money which may seem lucrative to teens or children.
According to Refugees International children and young adults are commonly forced into fighting or are promised food, shelter and protection from the crossfire during the civil war.
Child soldiers in Africa
“African children are being targeted across the continent as tools of war,” said Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch.
According to a report (The Use of Children as Soldiers in Africa presented for an African conference by Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and the Save the Children Alliance) “Children may begin participating in conflict as young as the age of seven. Some start as porters (carrying food or ammunition) or messengers, others as spies.
One rebel commander declared (as stated in the report): “They’re very good at getting information. You can send them across enemy lines and nobody suspects them [because] they’re so young.” And as soon as they are strong enough to handle an assault rifle or a semi-automatic weapon (normally at 10 years of age), children are used as soldiers.”
One former child soldier from Burundi stated: “We spent sleepless nights watching for the enemy. My first role was to carry a torch for grown-up rebels. Later, I was shown how to use hand grenades. Barely within a month or so, I was carrying an AK-47 rifle or even a G3.”
Anne-Lynn Dudenhoefer, an Open Source Intelligence Analyst and writer, in her article for Accord “Understanding the Recruitment of Child Soldiers in Africa,” states that “about 40% of all child soldiers globally are active on the African continent.”
Child soldiers in Asia
Radio Free Asia shared the story of Aung Ko Htway, who was abducted as a teenager and forced to serve in the Myanmar army for nearly 10 years. He states: “We were treated like animals, trapped in an army hall. The army camps are worse than jails. I was entrapped and saw no one, including any family members.”
Sarah El Sirgany, a journalist associated with CNN, in her article “Firing guns, finding bodies: Life for Yemen’s child soldiers” narrated the story of a young boy named Younis: “I saw the people beside me get killed. They would get a bullet (in the head) or in the chest. I was very scared. When the projectile hit me, I thought I was dying. I was overcome by fear and anxiety. Even now, I still feel the same way.”
She further stated: “According to Yemeni officials in the Western-backed government in the South believe there are more than 6,000 child soldiers across the country and suspect that as many as 20,000 children may need help with war rehabilitation.”
Naji who is 13, had the duty of dragging dead bodies from the field. “One day, I looked at the body and it was my uncle. I cried. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t pull his body out,” Naji shared the experience with CNN journalist Sarah El Sirgany.
YPG terror group
Kurd armed groups have been recruiting children and using them in conflict zones.
Lars Hauch who mostly writes about security politics, mentions in his article Child Soldiers and YPG: “the YPG refrain from recruiting children as fighters, it still would accept those aged 16-18 as members.
Four years later, in June 2018, the YPG pledged to raise the minimum age for membership to 17.” He then claimed that this pledge is violated at the local level, many times.
A UN report has confirmed that 313 child soldiers, 126 among them girls, were used in YPG wars in 2018. Security analysts say the YPG terror group was targeting child soldiers because they need more members who can be easily influenced.
Ukraine’s child solders
Even in modern Europe children are not safe from this evil.
In the conflict between the Kremlin-backed separatist and pro-Ukrainian government, children are recruited as soldiers.
Laurence Butet-Roch, a journalist associated with National Geography, in the article Ukrainian children train for combat wrote: “At Lider, a summer camp for children age 6 to 17 in the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, youngsters learn how to crawl through trenches, how to put on gas masks, how to assemble and disassemble assault rifles, how to shoot, and more.”
She further mentioned the personal observations of a war photographer, Diego Ibarra Sánchez, “the patriotic youth organisations train children not only how to survive combat and weapons, but also “how to hate ‘the other,’ how to defend yourself against your neighbour and kill them if necessary for your country.
These are considered as “patriotic education lessons,” Vitaly Shevchenko, a senior monitoring journalist at BBC, mentions in the article Ukraine conflict: Child soldiers join the fight.
The psychological impact of war on child soldiers
International organisations around the globe do their utmost to provide the best rehabilitation services to these war-affected child soldiers.
Voice of America (Child Soldiers Tell Their Stories: What they did to survive – 2003-09-04) shares the views of Rebecca Winthrop, who works for the International Rescue Committee’s education program for children affected by armed conflict in New York: “Most children are resilient and can regain normal functioning and move toward a normal development process if the appropriate environment is provided.”
The important task of providing an appropriate environment to children includes a healthy educational system and mixing them up back into the normal society.
However, this “mixing them up” back into the normal society is harder done than said as many of the children have already lost their families. And most of the conflict zone people are unwilling to adopt a new child especially one with a war background. These children suffer from trauma, behavioural issues, anxiety, sleep disorders, poor health, and excessive anger.
Ayesha Kadir, Sherry Shenoda, Jeffrey Goldhagen and Shelly Pitterman in their article “The Effects of Armed Conflict on Children (as published in Pediatrics December 2018) shared:
“Children who are affected by war have an increased prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and behavioural and psychosomatic complaints.”
“Young children exhibit increased anxiety, fear, startling, attention-seeking, temper tantrums, sadness and crying as well as difficulty sleeping alone and frequent awakenings.”
The report further highlighted: “the acute and chronic effects of armed conflict on child health and wellbeing are among the greatest child rights violations of the 21st century.”
Lessons learned and efforts to protect children
According to United Nations Peacekeeping, “thousands of children have been released from armed forces and groups within different contexts including, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Sudan, in partnership with UNICEF and national actors.”
Since 1998, UNICEF has helped more than 100,000 former children linked with armed groups to reintegrate into their normal social communities.
Some children, however, learn to take that horrible episode of the past as a learning experience.
Ivan Rogers shared with Voice of America (Child Soldiers Tell Their Stories: What they did to survive – 2003-09-04) that “life as a child soldier has taught him how to survive against all odds. He says the bullet in his stomach could kill him unless he has it removed. He recently scraped together enough money to travel to South Africa, where he hopes to have the surgery.”
But not all children reach this point and even those who receive the appropriate care and assistance are not certain of their future.
Despite the effort and all the money put in to protect children from entering the wars and armed groups, thousands of children are still part of this appalling fact and war and conflict.
All in all, children being innocent to mould, cheap and easy to get are used in conflict zones around the globe with no exception of First World or Third World countries.