MADISON, Wisconsin– Despite laws prohibiting the use of soldiers under the age of 18, it is estimated that there are tens of thousands of child soldiers still fighting in the world today. Children as young as age 10 are abducted and forced into a life of inexplicable violence and death.
Military regimes like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone developed a tried-and-true recipe for transforming starry-eyed youths into ruthless killing machines; the techniques are still in use:
The first step is to irretrievably separate a child from their homes and families.
When a village is raided the abducted children are typically forced to kill their parents, siblings or members of the community. Ricky Anywar, who later founded Friends of Orphans, was forced to watch his entire family burned alive inside its house.
After being taken from his village at the age of 12, Norman Okello was beaten into unconsciousness by his captors before joining a forced march. “They’d say, ‘Do you want to rest?’ and if you say ‘yes’ they kill you.” Norman describes how he was kept away from the other soldiers, told he was unworthy and dirty. This created a starting place for his advancement in the militia – being allowed to eat and talk with the group became a source of pride among the new recruits.
The next step for new recruits is killing.
“When you kill for the first time, automatically you change,” says Norman. “Out of being innocent, you now become guilty. You feel like you’re becoming part of them, part of the rebels.”
Ishmael describes his first experience with killing: “I raised my gun and pulled the trigger, and I killed a man. Suddenly all the death I had seen since the day I was touched by war began flashing in my head. Every time I stopped shooting to change magazines and saw my two lifeless friends, I angrily pointed my gun into the swamp and killed more people.”
Being newly allied with their abductors and always living on the edge of starvation keeps children from attempting to escape. Those who do attempt it are usually caught and killed viciously in front of their peers.
Norman believes there is a negative link between hope and sickness. “The moment you think about home, you start getting really thin.” For most abductees, ‘home’ no longer exists and everyone they know is dead. Even if they manage to escape they know they will likely starve or be recruited by another military group.
The final step in a child’s transformation is self-producing: rage.
Rage at being abducted and at their beatings and state of starvation, rage at the crimes they’re forced to witness and commit, rage at having no other choice. What Norman remembers most about his time as a soldier is ‘the furies.’ “Whenever I saw anything, it was not with a good heart. All my mind was full of destruction.”
Death became a way of living.
Soldiers compete to see who can cut off the most male genitalia from a raid; young recruits are sprinkled in holy water when presented with their gun so they become ‘united’ with the machine. Sources place the use of young girls as illegal soldiers and sex slaves at anywhere from 10% to 40%, depending on the country.
A report put out by Care International and regarding child soldiers of Colombia suggests that girls may be more willing to adapt to an organization that empowers them. “For some girls, belonging to an illegal armed group gives them a sense of power and control that they may not otherwise experience living in a relatively conservative, ‘machista’ [chauvinistic]society.” Whether this plays a part or not, girls make up only 5% of the soldiers who escape and go through rehabilitation.
The process of undoing the psychological damage of living as a child soldier takes years. Rehabilitation centers exist for this purpose, but the work there is slow and painful. Staff was often beaten by its charges and the former soldiers fight one another relentlessly, destroying furniture, stealing medication and refusing to follow instructions.
Ishmael recounts his memories of rehabilitation: “Whenever I turned on the faucet, all I could see was blood gushing out. I would stare at it until it looked like water before drinking or taking a shower. Boys sometimes ran out of the hall screaming, ‘The rebels are coming.’ Other times, the younger ones sat weeping and telling us that nearby rocks were their dead families.”
The children most vulnerable to abduction are those who are poor, have been separated from their families, have a limited education, or live in combat zones. The promotion of war fuels the use of child soldiers, and only by raising the standard of living in poor communities and thereby lowering the incentive for violence can people prevent the continued use of children in warfare.
– Lydia Caswell