Child Soldiers

By Compiled by Staff | 2004-01-01 12:00:00

I was in school when I heard a gunshot. The rebels had captured the place, so we went to the bush to escape and stay alive. After two days I went back to the town at night. It was held by rebels. I entered my house, took my father's clothes, and went back to the bush. My father had escaped with my brothers and sisters. I met them at one village, but because he could not give us food, I left him and went with the Boy Scouts. We took property from people from the town. (Before the war, I had already been a Scout.) They gave me a knife. We met one man standing with luggage containing clothes. We pushed him into the bush and took his luggage. I stayed five days with the Scouts. Later I went to a checkpoint and there I saw my elder brother, who was with his lieutenant. So then I joined and became a soldier. Later they gave me a rifle to fire, when the rebels attacked us.

I was just behind my brother, because he knew how to fight. They taught me how to use the gun, but when I had to do it, I was afraid, so I jumped down into the gutter. The soldiers said, "What are you doing there?" and laughed. So I came out and took my rifle. Two of my friends said, "Just fire where the rebels are." I was glad that my brother stood behind me because I didn't know how to fight.

The second time I fought was in Kabala. Then they shot me here, in my foot. In the Kono district I fell into ambushes. I stayed in the army a year and six months. I liked it because we could do anything we liked. When some civilian had something I liked, I just took it without him doing anything to me. We used to rape women. Anything I wanted to do, I did. I was free. Sometimes I went to my mother to buy a bag of rice for her.

The first time I fought I was really afraid, but later I got used to it and I was not afraid anymore. I remember the first time I killed somebody. An officer captured a rebel. He told me to take care of him. He was tied up with his hands on his back. He was sitting and I had my rifle. He was talking in a bad way to me. He even insulted my mother. I asked him, "Are you talking to me?" He said, "Yes." So I shot him in the stomach and he fell and bled to death. Later, when the lieutenant came back, he took me to the captain, and I had to stay for seven days in a room. That was my first killing. But in the battle I also killed.

The lieutenant used to provide us cocaine. I put it here, on my thumb nail, which is very long, and sniffed it. It was free for us, just before the fight. And every day we smoked marijuana. And totapak, a long packet. And Ramram; you smoke it. It is a leaf, like marijuana.

Until I was seriously shot, I always wanted to keep fighting. Then I went to the headquarters hospital in Yengema. I was there for just two weeks for my foot.

Most of my friends are still in the army, but I am glad to leave. I hope I can continue my schooling, but now it is a long time since I was in a class. I want to learn nursing and then go back to Kono to help my people.

-- Young former soldier in Sierra Leone Military Forces.

Today there are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the world -- most notably in Liberia, Congo, Uganda, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Burma, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Paraguay. Burma is believed to have the largest number of child soldiers, both in the regular army and in the various ethnic insurgent groups. In the Congo too, since 1996 dozens of military units have used children as young as eight. Accurate figures are impossible to ascertain -- partly because the militias or village leaders who use under-aged soldiers often deny doing so, and partly because the numbers are a matter of definition, which may vary. For example, childhood may be defined as ending at age 15, at 18, or at some other age. Also, the term "soldier" may be defined narrowly as someone who was recruited into, trained, and serving under the command of a regular army or militia. Or, instead, the term may be defined broadly to include rag-tag groups of rebels who follow mostly their own impulses. Those 300,000 child fighters are of myriad types.

Culpable Victims

It can be equally uncertain whether child soldiers are victims or war criminals themselves. Often they are actually both. For example, the boy quoted above did join the military voluntarily -- but only as a way of surviving after his normal life had been destroyed and all his other options had vanished. While functioning as a soldier, he perpetrated terrible crimes, while continuing to be a victim himself.

Child soldiers are poorly trained and too immature to have sound judgment. They often are sent into battle doped up with amphetamines, marijuana, liquor, or cocaine. UNICEF aid officer Nils Kastberg says, "There is nothing more terrifying than being stopped in the middle of the night at a checkpoint manned by 10-year-olds with guns. Children haven't had a chance to develop a value system.... They are totally unpredictable."

Considering the circumstances, it makes no sense to blame such children for their own actions -- but it is also impossible to treat them as innocent little kids. According to international law, children who are armed and fighting may be shot and killed legally, just as any other enemy combatants. Yet not every professional soldier can stand to gun down an eight-year-old who is wielding an AK-47 -- and those who do so may suffer unbearably from the memory. The real crime, of course, is that committed by the adults who let such situations arise. The use of child soldiers is, in fact, a war crime under international law.

Yet this war crime is not diminishing, but has increased since the end of the cold war. This is partly because most wars now are internal ones rather than international conflicts. Factions require the use of large numbers of fighters. As the war continues, large numbers of adult male soldiers are killed and are gradually replaced by children. For the first time, children have become effective fighters in battle, largely because of the proliferation of cheap weapons that weigh so little that even little kids can carry them.

Children are sometimes recruited by being press-ganged on the street, on football fields, religious festivals, or even in churches by militias who are given recruitment quotas to meet. In some cases, the child is taken back to his village and forced to kill someone he knows -- generally in a public, visible way, so he can be identified. Because he will be unable to return home he will probably not try to escape. Many of the children are used to find the way across mine fields, in dangerous spying missions, and are pushed to the front lines.

Most child soldiers join the army or rebel groups willingly for food, or to avenge the deaths of family members, or to gain some protection. About 90 per cent of these child soldiers are boys, but in some places girls are also used -- chiefly as nurses or cooks, but sometimes also in battle. Besides their other duties, the girls are always subjected to sexual abuse. In Northern Uganda, Human Rights Watch interviewers met girls who had been impregnated by rebel commanders; after giving birth, they had strapped their babies onto their backs and continued their tasks as fighters. An estimated two out of every three child soldiers die in the war -- and girls are more likely to perish than boys.


Psychologists who have interviewed former child soldiers report that they experience post-traumatic stress disorders with flashbacks, nightmares, concentration difficulties, aggressive behavior, and feelings of guilt. For example, a 14-year-old child veteran from Liberia, said:

"When I sit alone, I hear people crying ´Don't kill me.' I see them clearly. I know their faces. I have to smoke grass to get a good sleep. When I don't, I see visions all night. I see my enemies with guns looking for me, shouting my name, ´Born to Kill, Born to Kill.' I get scared a lot at night."

Other studies suggest that many children can be rehabilitated if the post-war conditions are favorable. No one should refer to them as a "lost generation," for labeling them in such a way stigmatizes them and reduces the possibility of healing. Some indigenous practices are especially likely to be helpful. For example, one traditional healer in an Angolan community has developed effective ways of purifying child soldiers who are regarded as contaminated by the spirits of their dead victims. He lives with the child for a month, feeding him a special cleansing diet and instructing him on proper behavior and what the village expects of him. At the end of the month, the healer brings the villagers together for a ritual where he buries the ex-soldier's weapons and announces that on this day the boys' life as a soldier has ended and his life as a civilian has begun.

Toward the Protection of Children

Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambique's first President, Samora Machel, also served as Minister of Education. She is now wife of South Africa's revered former President, Nelson Mandela. In 1996 she produced a report for the United Nations. "The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children." One chapter, titled "Both Ends of Gun," calls for a global campaign to demobilize all child soldiers and to eradicate the use of children under the age of 18 years in the armed forces. One background paper prepared for the Machel report stated that child soldiers are "more obedient, do not question orders and are easier to manipulate than adult soldiers." And they usually don't demand pay.

"In Cambodia, a survey of wounded soldiers found that 20 per cent of them were between the ages of 10 and 14 when recruited. In Sri Lanka, of 180 Tamil Tiger guerrillas killed in one government attack, more than half were still in their teens, and 128 were girls."

The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child defined childhood as below the age of 18 years, while nevertheless recognizing 15 as the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces. An Optional Protocol to the Convention was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000. Two years later, 109 countries had signed it, and 35 countries had ratified it. It has entered into force, raising the minimum age of conscription to 18. The minimum age for voluntary recruitment is now 16, and the governments who induct such youths to the military must maintain a series of safeguards, ensuring their recruitment is genuinely voluntary; is done with the informed consent of the parents or legal guardians; that recruits are fully informed of the duties involved in military service; and that proof of age is established.

The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers is an NGO working to win the ratification of the protocol by all countries. Its "Global Report" is an annual document based on the organization's ongoing monitoring of recruitment standards and practices in more than 180 countries. The coalition maintains a list of priority countries that they particularly want to press to sign and/or ratify. Crucial countries that have signed and should be encouraged to ratify the protocol are Cambodia, Colombia, Ireland, Jordan, Nepal, the Philippines, and Uruguay. Countries that have not signed the protocol include: Algeria, Eritrea, Fiji, Ghana, Mozambique, Qatar, Thailand, and Yemen.

Canadians wishing to participate in this campaign may contact their web site:, or Peter Chapman, of the Canadian Friends Service Committee at <> or Kathy Vandergrift at World Vision Canada, 613 721 9660. Email:, or Peter Chapman, of the Canadian Friends Service Committee at; or Kathy Vandergrift at World Vision Canada, 613 721 9660. Email:

Sources: Africa News; CNN; Associated Press; BBC News;; Michaela Mendelsohn in 1998; a journal article "Why We Fight" by Krijn Peters and Paul Richards, in Africa, Vol. 68, 1998; "Use of Children as Soldiers" by Shannon McManimon in Foreign Policy in Focus, Nov. 1999;; Michaela Mendelsohn in 1998; a journal article "Why We Fight" by Krijn Peters and Paul Richards, in Africa, Vol. 68, 1998; "Use of Children as Soldiers" by Shannon McManimon in Foreign Policy in Focus, Nov. 1999;

They Followed Us

Ler Wah Lo Bo served in the Karen Army in Burma. These are his memories of child soldiers

I saw some kids under age 10. Sometimes they came to the army and said they wanted to come along with us; they didn't want to stay home anymore because their relatives had died.

One came with a small bag. We said, "No, you're too young. You need to go to school. What are you going to do in the jungle? It's a very hard life. You have no house, you have to struggle a lot." He said, "I'll be satisfied, even if I just serve you."

The next day their mothers or sister would come and ask if they could get their child back. I said, "Why not? Just take your child back." When kids stayed with us, there was a big problem for me to control them, to take care of them. Sometimes I would ask the villagers to take care of them when we went away. When we came back, they were still waiting. A few of them had gone back to their homes. Those who were still waiting, I arranged for them to stay in our headquarters to get training. But for very young children, we did not allow them to be soldiers. We had to arrange transportation for them, since it was very far. You have to take the boat upstream, and it's a lot of steps. But they followed us. We had a particular person to take them back to headquarters, where they enrolled as soldiers.

As a rebel group, we needed more soldiers, but they were too young. The commander accepted them and after that sent them to school. They stayed with our people. When they got to be 15 or 16, they were strong enough and didn't want to study any longer. They said, "We're soldiers. We should go to the front lines." Then we would send them for maybe six months of training. They would serve in the headquarters for another year or so, serving as a night sentry, or aide to the commander. Then they would go to the front lines.

Karen children became soldiers mostly because they had seen atrocities. But the city children joined mainly because of family poverty. People in cities are always scared of the military intelligence. When they have hardship in their lives (starvation, for example) they look on the soldiers as an attraction. If you become a soldier you don't have to go to work as a "volunteer." If you don't want to work, you have to pay a fine, but if you're a soldier, your family won't have to.

Also, some soldiers come back from the front lines with a lot of money and clothing. They just take whatever they want along the route, without questions. People leave their houses when they hear that the soldiers are coming, leaving their belongings. The soldiers get all of it. And some soldiers act as sentries at checkpoints, and they can collect a lot of money from the traders. Especially in the opium region, the Golden Triangle, or in the Shan State, they can make a lot of money from the traffickers. So the children see this money and want to become soldiers.

I have not directly seen any children injured in battle, but a friend of mine was sent to another brigade and he said that when the attack began, the troops were coming up hill like a wave. Our troops were on the hill, shooting downward. At the beginning they didn't notice, but later they realized that the kids coming up the hill were about ten or twelve. They were coming with two grenades. No guns. So our soldiers had to shoot them down. Another guy said that when he had been in the Burmese army, he saw the commander give each soldier a pill just before they started the attack, but he didn't know what it was. After 15 minutes, they would go into battle, crazy from the pill. If they successfully threw the grenades, they would go back down the hill, but on the way a lot of them died.

War Child Canada: Building a No War Zone

War Child Canada has launched a new web site for its international youth network, No War Zone. Using feedback from youth around the world, the No War Zone web site now functions to increase direct contact between Canadian youth and their peers in war zones. An initiative of War Child Canada, No War Zone is an international network of youth working together for peace, human rights, and global understanding. Through on-line common space, youth in this network are creating and implementing projects to assist war-affected communities; sharing their creativity in art, music, and writing; building friendships; and promoting international issues they care about. This new web site will allow members to create clubs and access new resources. See

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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