|From right: UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman, former child soldier Ishmael Beah and French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy at the Paris conference on children in armed conflict.|
By Dan Thomas
PARIS, France, 5 February 2007 – A former child soldier from Sierra Leone today implored delegates at an international conference on children and armed conflict to help rehabilitate young people like him.
“No one is born violent. No child in Africa, Latin America or Asia wants to be part of war. These are situations children are forced into,” explained Ishmael Beah, 26. “But over time, because they are traumatized and constantly given drugs, this becomes habitual – the only reality they know.
“It is easy to become a child soldier but it is much more difficult to recover one’s humanity,” he added. “But it is possible.”
‘Free Children from War’
Mr. Beah, who fought in his country’s civil war as a teenager, was rehabilitated in 1996 as part of a UNICEF-supported disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme. He later moved to the United States, where he now lives with a family in New York.
In his speech to the ‘Free Children from War’ meeting at the International Conference Centre in Paris, Mr. Beah urged that governments keep funding programmes to rehabilitate former child soldiers as well as other children, including girls, who find themselves pulled into conflict through no fault of their own.
|Former Sierra Leonean child soldier Ishmael Beah challenges delegates at the ‘Free Children from War’ conference in Paris.|
Funding used for rehabilitating children is money well spent and can help avoid future problems, he said.
Another life is possible
The high-level conference, which has attracted delegates from more than 55 countries, is being hosted by French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman.
Opening the two-day meeting this morning, the French Foreign Minister challenged delegates never to give up on children.
“For many observers, a child who has known nothing but war, a child for whom the Kalashnikov is the only way to make a living and for whom the bush is the most welcoming community, is a child lost forever for peace and development. I contest this view,” he said.
“We have the means to conquer this problem. We can do more. That is the aim of this meeting. For these children and young people it is essential to prove that another life is possible.”
Reintegrating child soldiers
Ms. Veneman called for a broad partnership of governments, donors and non-governmental organizations.
“We have a shared commitment to help children caught in the wars of adults and to protect, release and reintegrate child soldiers,” she said. “We have made strides in bringing children from battlefields back to their communities and classrooms, but much remains to be done.”
Other speakers included Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Gűnter Gloser, Minister of State for Europe representing the Presidency of the European Union; and Kari Tapiola, Executive Director of the International Labour Organisation.
The conference was convened by UNICEF and the French Government to explore opportunities to better support boys and girls affected by armed conflict. Delegates are from countries affected by conflict as well as donor countries.
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