Ultimate Loss of Innocence: Child Soldier

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SEATTLE — On December 18, 1865, slavery ended in the United States. For most U.S. citizens, the concept of slavery is dead. Out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately, this luxury of ignorance is nonexistent to some living in Asia, Africa and parts of the Middle East. According to the Freedom Center, the basic foundation of slavery involves “victims {who} are forced to work involuntarily or are unable to leave once they have started.” Slavery takes many forms in modern society including forced labor, debt labor, sex slavery, child slavery and domestic servitude.

Throughout Africa, the concept of slavery has molded into dispensable child soldiers. Child soldiers are children or teenagers under the age of 18 who participate in any military activities. Some are rescued in their late teens, while others are lucky enough to escape as young as four. Not only boys are used in battle — many are female. The biggest misconception surrounding modern-day child soldiers is that their struggles end once they are free; in reality, their struggles only transform as they must face inner demons, poverty and stigmatization.

Some child soldiers are forced to commit acts related to asymmetrical warfare. Others are forced to be cooks, messengers, suicide bombers or spies for the group. Many of the children, male and female, are also forced to perform sexual acts for their commanders and superiors.

Children can become child soldiers due to a variety of circumstances. Some children, particularly older teenagers, join voluntarily due to poverty, lack of resources or a longing to be a part of something greater than themselves. Younger children are abducted more often since they are much easier to manipulate. During conflicts and war, children are separated from their parents easily. This separation makes them an easy target for recruitment and abduction, putting refugee children at a greater vulnerability. The “recruiters” are officials of legitimate government armed forces or members of local militias.

Between 2001 and 2016, the number of countries restricting their military to adults has increased from 83 to 126, which accounts for 71 percent of states containing an armed force. At least 60 non-state armed groups have committed to stop or reduce their recruitment of children. This progress from the international community combined with international law further enforces the ‘Straight 18′ standard, which will hopefully become the global norm.

To further discourage states from exploiting children during times of war and conflict, the United Nations secretary-general publishes an annual “list of shame” showing which state armed forces and non-state armed groups used child soldiers. In 2016, seven countries and 51 non-state armed groups appeared on the “shame list” including Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, ISIS, Kachin Independence Army, Mai-Mai Nyatura, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, the Taliban and Yemen. Unfortunately, 43 state armed forces appeared on the list which trained children but did not use them in battle until they turned 18.

How can a child soldier reintegrate into society after such trauma? A young girl from Uganda, Grace Achara, escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army and thought the rest of her life would be easy. She spent more than half of her life in the LRA. In captivity, she experienced rape and verbal abuse, was forced to commit crimes and forced to kill. “I was just 16 when I killed for the first time,” Grace recalled. When she finally escaped these horrors, she presumed that life would be easier. Little did she know, however, that poverty, inner demons, PTSD and stigmatization would become her new daily battle.

Separated from her husband (who was sent to a different relief organization), Grace and her four children were dropped off at the Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO). GUSCO is a center for trauma counselling, healthcare, reintegration into the community, vocational training and tracing lost family. The center significantly helps thousands of women and children. However, GUSCO is no longer in operation due to a lack of funding. Grace was only able to attend one week before she had to leave due to the funding cutbacks.

A few years later, Grace began to support herself and her family. The nonprofit Pathways To Peace offered to guide her and ensure progress in her life. Ocitti, the founder, wanted Pathways To Peace to ensure that services are available to victims that have returned and to those who will return, as well as pushing the victims to focus on moving forward and progressing.

The stories of child soldiers vary depending on the war, region and specific circumstances. However, their rehabilitation and “life after” stories seem to hold similar value.

In the 2007 bestseller, A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah describes his life as a child soldier for the government forces in Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s. NPR later conducted an interview after the book release to further examine Ishmael’s life and reintegration.

Ishmael believes the goal of rehabilitation is not to forget everything from time as a child soldier. He stated, “sometimes some of these things don’t need to be washed out of you, as most people will think.”

Life as a child soldier teaches survival and resilience. A child uses the obstacles he or she overcomes and the skills he learns for good in his future. “Some of the things that young people learn during war… can be refocused in a positive way.”

For survivors and former child soldiers, the key to happiness is integration back into the community through awareness and education to community members, as well as rehabilitation programs, vocational training and counseling provided for the victim.

Danielle Preskitt
Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Danielle Preskitt

Danielle lives in McDonough, Georgia. Danielle has a BA in Political Science and Russian Area Studies from Clemson University Honors College. She studied abroad in the former Yugoslavia to study the dissolution and human rights violations. She also has an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies and Russian Language from Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. Danielle is currently a liaison between the Arms Control Association and the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, as well as an “Emerging Expert” in the Forum on the Arms Trade and an editorial fellow with YPFP.

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