For many former child soldiers, the war is never over
By Eva Krafczyk Feb 12, 2011, 17:19 GMT
Nairobi - Mark R., who requested to remain anonymous, was in special operations with the US Marines for years.
Now in his mid-40s, still sporting the shaved head and muscles of a career Marine, he is not one to be spooked easily.
'But any time I encountered child soldiers, I was totally afraid,' Mark R. admits.
'You look in these dead eyes and you know that anything might happen. You don't want to shoot at children but you know that these kids have been trained to be killers.'
War lords and militia leaders the world over love their young fighters, because the boys and girls, some as young as ten, who have been abducted from their villages and forced to do battle, are fearless combatants once they have been trained for war.
Worldwide there are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers. In Uganda and neighbouring countries alone the notorious rebel leader Joseph Kony has abducted at least 30,000 children and youths in more than 20 years.
Yet not all children soldiers have been kidnapped. In eastern Chad, for example, representatives of various rebel groups have sent their own child soldiers into refugee camps to recruit other children, according to a new report by Amnesty International (AI).
Some children volunteer in order to escape poverty.
'We never had enough to eat. I wanted to improve the situation for my family and help my mother,' Amnesty International quoted one boy, Azam, as saying. Azam became a warrior at age 13.
Sometimes it is the parents themselves who send their sons to join armed groups. They hope that the boys will be safer with the armed fighters than they were at home in their villages, vulnerable to marauders.
For most children there is no way back, even if they managed to escape. Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), for example, forced child warriors to kill their parents and sibling and burn down their own village during the civil war in northern Uganda. Those who refused to do so were killed.
'Many people who have experienced war are especially fearful of child soldiers, even when they know that they have been forced to do horrific things,' says Dora Akol, a worker with World Vision in Gulu in northern Uganda who counsels former child soldiers.
Learning to use a Kalashnikov, the favored weapon of rebels in conflict regions throughout the Third World, is literally child's play. For many child soldiers, the assault gun is as much a part of their everyday lives as fetching water or shepherding livestock was when they lived with their families.
'I was proud to be a fighter. I felt strong and invincible when I went into battle with my gun,' recalls Jane Akello, who was abducted at age 12 by Kony's people. Now she is in Gulu helping to reintegrate former child soldiers into civilian life.
But it is not easy, especially for those who were guerrilla fighters in the jungle and who saw their playmates die horribly and who were forced to commit atrocities. For them, the war is never over.
A large proportion of the former child soldiers from Uganda and the Congo still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2007 study.
'Some of them are no longer able to control their aggressions even when they suffer from what they have become,' says Akol. 'And even when these children's families take them back - the families live in fear of them.'
Often times there is nothing to go back to and there is no way to recapture their lost childhoods, even in peace time. Thus, some 3,000 underage soldiers are still with the former civil-war military in soon-to-be independent southern Sudan. The war between the north and the south ended in Sudan in 2005.
Ekkehard Forberg, World Vision Germany human-rights expert, is hoping that pressure will be brought to bear against use of child soldiers during Germany's stint on the UN Security Council.
'Germany is leading the initiation of the committee on children in armed conflicts,' he says. 'Initial signs are encouraging. We hope that sanctions against attacks on children and also on schools and hospitals will be applied earlier than they have until now.'