By Vincent Lyn
‘‘The rebels’ told me to join them, but I said no. Then they killed my smaller brother — I changed my mind.”- L, age 7
“Children, my dear brother, are the best fighters of the century. They have more energy than older people. They resist without feeling physical pain.” — Lucien, 12, ex child soldier from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“At our age, , it’s more complicated for the rebels. So they use stronger stuff, like drugs or money, to bait us and to make us march…I remember the attack on Njola-Kombouya village, in the south of Sierra Leone. They made us wake up at 1 in the morning and we marched until 7. A doctor came. He had a small bowl of cold water, and, every two injections, he rinsed his needle in the water. It was always a small vial with red liquid. At first, I constantly felt weak and then after, I had a sense of overwhelming power, I felt myself capable of anything…I had rage, hate, I wanted to destroy everything. You can’t understand, we were placed in such a state that we laughed in face of all that violence, we found it exciting, we had no limits.” — Moussa, 15 , ex child soldier from Sierra Leone
Despite global efforts to end the use of child soldiers, girls and boys are still forced into combat — as fighters and in other roles — in at least 14 countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Somalia.Tens of thousands of children are estimated to be recruited and used by armed groups. In 2019 alone, more than 7,740 children, some as young as six, were recruited and used as soldiers around the world, according to the United Nations. Most are recruited by non-state groups. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Syria and Yemen currently have the largest number of child soldiers. The number of child soldiers involved in conflicts globally has increased 159% within five years, with almost 50,000 verified recruitment cases since 2012, Child Soldiers International, a human rights organization based in London.
The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could lead to more children being recruited by armed groups, the United Nations warned since recently marking the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers.
“They give you a firearm, and you have to slaughter your best friend. They do that to see if they can trust you. If you don’t kill, your friend is ordered to kill you. I had to do it, otherwise I would have been killed. That’s why I left. I couldn’t handle all that any more .” — Colombia, boy recruited at 7 by a paramilitary group when he was a child in the streets.
Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and persistent unrest in Somalia, South Sudan, Democratic Republic Congo, Central African Republic and elsewhere are all leaving children increasingly exposed to recruitment. Boys and girls are routinely being used as fighters and at checkpoints, as informants, to loot villages and as domestic and sexual slaves.
Child recruitment is among the most desperate human rights issues of our time. These statistics alone are shocking and probably only scratch the surface on the true scale of child exploitation by armed actors around the world. Though improvements have been made to end the use of child soldiers, it is believed that close to 300,000 child soldiers are still being recruited and forced into war across the world today. Child soldiers are children under the age of 18, some even as young as seven years of age, who are used for any purpose in a military or armed group. Child soldiers can act as cooks, messengers, informants, soldiers, suicide bombers or even sex slaves. Armed forces can manipulate children easily, they do not eat very much food, and they do not have to be paid. Soldiers take advantage of this and use children as pawns in their dangerous battles.
Forty percent of the world’s armed forces use child soldiers. Though child soldiers are often associated with African conflicts, they have been used throughout history in armies all over the world. Children who are poor or have little access to education have a higher chance of being forcibly recruited. Some children choose to enter the military to escape poverty or because they believe they will be offered safety and security by doing so.
Sometimes, as part of their recruitment, child soldiers are forced to kill family members or neighbors to desensitize them and make it so the children cannot go back to their homes and communities. Children are often used to man checkpoints when there is no active combat taking place. The soldiers will stand several meters back so if anyone starts to fire a weapon, the child soldiers will be the first ones to get hit. Girl soldiers are often used as “wives” and are sexually abused. Human Rights Watch has reported girl soldiers being impregnated by their commanders and having to fight with their child strapped to their backs.
Child soldiers are known to be fighting in at least 14 countries, including Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Thailand. If child soldiers are released, they often lack basic survival skills because they were supplied food and shelter in battle. This makes it difficult for them to survive if and when they become free. When child soldiers are released, many are shunned and given little if any support to reintegrate into their communities. If there is a lack of rehabilitation support, children are frequently recruited back into the military.
Children are also recruited because they are more manageable, more obedient, and more easily manipulated than adults. Children are also less conscious of danger, and it is harder for them to see the difference between “absence” and “death”. Combined with questions of poverty, the lack of access to education or training, discrimination, and vulnerability, children are easy targets for recruitment by armed groups. Children who are orphaned, unaccompanied or living in a difficult family environment, see it as a solution to their problems, and taking part in an armed group seems safer than confronting these problems. Revenge, community identity, and ideology can also influence children. Armed groups often target children because they “cost less”: the necessary investments for recruiting, training, and arming children are less than for adults. What’s more, today children are generally recruited in civil war environments, which are long and cause heavy casualties. As a result, children replace adults dead in combat.
Child soldiers are usually presented as victims of adults, and forced recruitment is more readily emphasized than voluntary engagement. However, the majority of children choose to become soldiers and are real players of the conflicts.
The taboo of child soldiers for armies and the simplistic vision of the phenomenon in public opinion is a major challenge in resolving the problem, because it tends to want to grant a certain immunity to child soldiers, without accounting for the complexity of the problem and the conscious will of the child soldiers.
“When the mayi-mayi attacked my village, we all ran away…the soldiers captured all the girls, even the very young. Once with the soldiers, you were forced to “marry” one of the soldiers…If you refused, they would kill you…They would slaughter people like chickens…. Wherever we were fighting, along the way, they would take the women and girls working in the fields…They would take young girls, remove their clothes, and then would rape them…My “husband” did not beat me too often. ..But one day, he was killed in an attack. I felt I was in danger and I should leave. On the way, as I was pregnant, I had my baby. I was alone in the bush, without medication. I still have pain from this. Then I went to the village of my “husband”, but his parents rejected me and my child, after taking all my belongings. They blamed me for his death. I wanted to go to my home, but it is so far away, I was afraid the mayi-mayi would find me and capture me again.”
-This is Jasmie’s story of being a child soldier in the DRC when she was 12.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts