Disengaged child soldiers find hope after decades-long conflict

Recruitment and use of children in armed conflict is a grave violation of their rights

UNICEF Philippines
A child in a blue shirt looks out of a window, the curtain hiding his face
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
19 November 2019

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines – On a sunny Friday, Al-Fatah* shoots hoops with friends in a makeshift basketball court before noon prayers. In the playground near his home in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, is a dusty clearing framed by coconut trees, the single board and hoop nailed to a tree trunk.

The 18-year-old junior high school student, who loves science and sports, could pass for a regular teenager. But at 14, he was recruited by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a non-state rebel group where his father served as a commander and his mother was part of the auxiliary force.

The camp where his family lives is like any rural village with jeepneys ferrying civilian passengers to and from town. Small food stalls dot the roadside. However, fatigues-clad Bangsamoro soldiers – to be decommissioned in phases under the peace deal – still walk around with long firearms.

UNICEF Philippines/2019

Disengaged from the ranks

Not far from Al-Fatah’s community lives 18-year-old Norjanah* with a similar story. At 13, she joined the MILF-Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade, as a medic alongside her mother. Her late father was an MILF fighter. When he died, the family moved to a home closer to her mother’s relatives. With her mother’s meagre income, the family could no longer afford to send her to school. She dropped out in seventh grade.

In 2017, both Al-Fatah and Norjanah were disengaged from the MILF along with nearly 2,000 child soldiers. The armed group signed an Action Plan with the United Nations. UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, implemented the Action Plan through an eight-year disengagement process which eventually led to the removal of MILF from the UN Secretary General’s list of armed groups for recruitment and use of children – a grave violation of child rights.

Within this period, MILF also ended its decades-long fight to establish an independent state by signing a historic peace deal with the government in 2014. In 2019, MILF leaders head a new autonomous Bangsamoro region after the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law in 2018.

“I grew up in the camps and with a sense of responsibility to join the cause,” said Al-Fatah, whose home was inside an MILF camp. “Joining the ranks to defend the Bangsamoro was a natural choice.”

A girl wearing a hijab stands in her home, facing away from the camera to hide her face
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
Norjanah (not her real name), 13, joined the Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as a medic alongside her mother. "My worst experience was seeing an MILF soldier get hit in the knees and lose his legs," she said.

Al-Fatah stopped going to school when he was 12. His parents, then serving in the MILF, could not afford his education. “I joined the rebel group to support the cause. I had nothing else to do,” said Al-Fatah. In the training, he learned how to handle weapons, but his job was to help with chores like sweeping the floor, gathering firewood or washing the dishes.

“The scariest part of the training was the times for punishments,” he said. “That is when I realized that being a soldier is really difficult and it is not for children. Some vomited and fainted during training.”

Norjanah had the same thoughts. “My worst experience was seeing an MILF soldier who was hit in the knees and lost his legs,” Norjanah said. “I panicked and was really scared. But I braced myself, so I could treat him immediately to lessen his pain.”

Al-Fatah and Norjanah went through psychosocial interventions provided by UNICEF in collaboration with the MILF. Their families were also referred to government agencies for additional support including birth registration, education, skills and livelihood trainings.

Norjanah regrets the years she spent away from school. “If I didn’t drop out, I would have already been in college,” she mused. School dropout rates are high in the Bangsamoro region. Inflicted by poverty, conflict and poor social indicators, four out of 10 Bangsamoro children never enroll in primary education; and only two in 10 complete secondary schooling. The numbers add up to a staggering 400,000 adolescents every year, who miss out on school.

A boy in a blue shirt walks in the background, his back turned to the camera to hide his face. In the foreground is a man wearing a shirt printed with details of social activity.
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
“I grew up in the camps and with a sense of responsibility to join the cause,” said Al-Fatah, whose home was inside an MILF camp.

With peace comes opportunities

After being disengaged in 2017, Norjanah went through the Alternative Learning System, earning equivalency that allowed her to move up to Grade 11. 

The shy teenager lives with her mother and six younger siblings in a dimly lit room in the basement of a former dormitory. The monthly rent of 500 pesos covers the use of one light bulb and an electric fan. Outside are the shared makeshift kitchen and bathroom. The family’s only means is some assistance from an uncle and the meagre income of the mother from selling personal care products. 

As the eldest child, she dreams of building a house for her mother and to help her siblings complete their studies.

“I’m glad that I am no longer in the camp. I can now focus on my studies,” she said. “My dream is to become a nurse, to help others.”

Al-Fatah is happy to be finally living a normal life together with his parents without fearing separation and conflict. He and his four siblings can pursue their studies. He thinks studying social work in college will prepare him to help his community. He hopes for lasting peace in their Bangsamoro homeland.

The peace agreement, and the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law paving way to new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, gives Norjanah hope for a promising future.

“My hope is to have long-lasting peace for my Bangsamoro land,” Norjanah said.

A girl wearing a hijab, her face turned away from the camera, cooks food over a stove in her home
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
Norjanah doing chores at home. “I’m glad that I am no longer in the camp. I can now focus on my studies,” she said. “My dream is to become a nurse, to help others.”

Ensuring protection for every child in Bangsamoro

UNICEF recommends carefully safeguarding disengaged child soldiers like Al-Fatah and Norjanah to avoid possible recruitment by other armed groups and to ensure that they enjoy their full rights.

“In situations of armed conflict, recruitment and use of children are grave violation of their rights,” said Rohannie Baraguir-Datumanong, UNICEF Child Protection Officer based in the Bangsamoro region. “These include children’s right to play, to be with their friends, to enjoy their childhood and to go to school to develop their full potential.”

The Office of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict stated that, “Regardless of how children are recruited and of their roles, child soldiers are victims, whose participation in conflict bears serious implications for their physical and emotional well-being.”

Social workers continue to visit Al-Fatah and Norjanah to monitor their progress. While the risks are present, the MILF has established a system to carefully monitor the children to ensure they will not be associated with any other armed groups.

For Al-Fatah and Norjanah, peace, education and other opportunities – things they could only imagine a few years back – are now within their reach.

*Names of the former child soldiers have been changed to protect their identity.

This is the third in a series of CRC@30 Philippines stories gathered by Shirin Bhandari, Teresa Cerojano, Claro Cortes, Jeoffrey Maitem, Charena Escala, Arby Laraño and Iris Lapid, with fact checks, technical and editorial inputs by a UNICEF Philippines team.