|© UNICEF Kinshasa/Page/2003|
|A former child soldier studies high-school math in Kinshasa, DRC, as part of a UNICEF rehabilitation programme.|
These children’s stories are as endless as the horrors they have witnessed in these make-shift armies.
“I’ve seen war before … up close. So much destruction and killing. It first
happened in 1991. That’s when the rebels came to our village,” says John, a tall, soft-spoken teenager in the DRC.
“They beat my father and put him in jail. Then they asked me if I would join them. I said yes, because I wanted to protect my father - I was sure they were going to kill him. I was six years old,” he says.
John was taken away from his home in Liberia along with 175 other children who were all forced to participate in military training in the bush.
“The training lasted three months. Then, they sent us to fight at the front lines. I did that for the next five years. They gave us lots of drugs to make us feel strong and brave and to carry out their orders no matter what,” says John.
After the fighting stops
“Then when I turned 11 years old, in December 1996, the soldiers said there was going to be peace in Liberia and I was very happy. I quit being a soldier after five years of
fighting in the bush,” he says. John was the first child soldier to demobilize in Lofa County when the United Nations helped with the demobilization process.
Today, he is 18 years old. He has been going to school since he left the front lines as part of an UNICEF-supported child soldier reintegration programme. The programme helps reunify ex-combatants with their families, and assists with psychological counselling and educational opportunities, among other things.
Today there are approximately 15,000 child combatants in Liberia, over 200,000 in the DRC, along with thousands more in other countries in the region.
Unwilling participants in war
A child soldier is any child who is part of an armed force or armed group, in any capacity, and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members. A child does not need to carry a weapon to make him or her a soldier – children are also used as cooks, porters, messengers or may be recruited for sexual purposes or forced marriage.
The majority of these children are forced to fight, by all parties to the conflicts. They often come from poor families or are displaced or living on their own. Many are uneducated or are school dropouts. Others are abducted from their villages or they and their families are threatened with death if they don’t join up.
Often, the children are drugged to make them ‘brave,’ follow orders or dull them into submission. The drugs also help quell their fear, hunger and loneliness.
In addition to witnessing or being forced to participate in atrocities, children in some countries are scarred across the chest or forehead by knives or broken glass with the initials of the armed group that controls them.
UNICEF works with its partners to create protective and healthy learning environments where former child soldiers can learn to live without the gun, acquire new skills to prepare for their future and learn how to become productive citizens in their society.
And, perhaps most importantly, where they can learn to be children again.
Healthy, protective environments also help children avoid recruitment: a child living in a family and going to school is a child less likely to be recruited by an armed group. Such children will have more positive options available in the future, like John, who is now in eighth grade and hopes someday to become a doctor.
“I’ve been asked to fight again, but I’ve refused,” he says. “My education is too important to me.”