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Children as soldiers

Most child casualties are civilians. But one of the most deplorable developments in recent years has been the increasing use of young children as soldiers. In one sense, this is not really new. For centuries children have been involved in military campaigns—as child ratings on warships, or as drummer boys on the battlefields of Europe. Indeed the word 'infantry', for foot-soldiers, can also mean a group of young people. What is frightening nowadays is the escalation in the use of children as fighters. Recently, in 25 countries, thousands of children under the age of 16 have fought in wars.8 In 1988 alone, they numbered as many as 200,000.

One reason for this is the proliferation of light weapons. In the past, children were not particularly effective as front-line fighters since most of the lethal hardware was too heavy and cumbersome for them to manipulate. A child might have been able to wield a sword or a machete but was no match for a similarly armed adult.

However, a child with an assault rifle, a Soviet-made AK-47 or an American M-16, is a fearsome match for anyone. These weapons are very simple to use. The AK-47 can be stripped and reassembled by a child of 10. The rifles have also become much cheaper and more widely available—having few moving parts they are extremely durable and have steadily accumulated in war zones.

Since their introduction in 1947, around 55 million AK-47s have been sold; in one African country, for example, they cost no more than US$6 each.9 The M-16 is just as ubiquitous, and has been described by one military historian as the "transistor radio of modern warfare."10

Besides being able to use lethal weapons, children have other advantages as soldiers. They are easier to intimidate and they do as they are told. They are also less likely than adults to run away and they do not demand salaries.

In long-drawn-out conflicts children also become a valued resource. Many current disputes have lasted a generation or more—half of those under way in 1993 had been going on for more than a decade. Children who have grown up surrounded by violence see this as a permanent way of life. Alone, orphaned, frightened, bored and frustrated, they will often finally choose to fight. In the Philippines, which has suffered for decades from a war of insurgency, many children have become soldiers as soon as they enter their teens. When schools are closed and families fragmented, there are few influences that can compete with a warrior's life.11

Indeed, in these circumstances, a military unit can be something of a refuge—serving as a kind of surrogate family. In Uganda in 1986, the National Resistance Army had an estimated 3,000 children, many under 16, including 500 girls, most of whom had been orphaned and who looked on the Army as a replacement for their parents.12

At a more basic level, joining an army may also be the only way to survive. Many children joined armed groups in Cambodia in the 1980s as the best way to secure food and protection. Similarly, in Liberia in 1990, children as young as seven were seen in combat because, according to the Director of the Liberian Red Cross, "those with guns could survive." In Myanmar, parents volunteer their children for the rebel Karen army because the guerrillas provide clothes and two square meals a day; in 1990, an estimated 900 of the 5,000-strong Karen Army were under the age of 15.13

Finally, children may also have active reasons to want to fight. Like adults, they too may see themselves fighting for social justice—as was often the case in Central America or South Africa—or they may want to fight for their religious beliefs or cultural identity. In more personal terms, they may also be seeking revenge for the deaths of their parents, brothers or sisters.

Many children, therefore, want to become soldiers and offer themselves for service. Others are deliberately recruited. This was true in Liberia, where a quarter of the combatants in the various fighting factions were children—some 20,000 in all. Indeed, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia had its own 'small boys unit', ranging in age from 6 to 20 (Panel 2).

Armed groups will often aim their propaganda specifically at young people. In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been particularly active in the school system, indoctrinating children.

In these circumstances, children can be expected to join up. But even if they do not volunteer they may be recruited forcibly. Over the past decade, government forces in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Myanmar, among others, have all conscripted children. In the 1980s, the Ethiopian army would kidnap boys of 15 or younger from the villages and the poorest quarters of the cities, as well as from schools.14 Opposition movements in many countries have also seized children—as in Angola, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and the Sudan.

The Renamo forces in Mozambique, in particular, systematically practised forced recruitment. Renamo had at least 10,000 boy soldiers, some as young as six years old. Similarly, in Angola, a 1995 survey found that 36 per cent of children had accompanied or supported soldiers, and 7 per cent of Angolan children had fired at somebody.15

Once recruited, children undergo varying degrees of indoctrination, often verging on the brutal. While in the early 1980s rebel groups in El Salvador offered primary school instruction, usually the training offered is less benevolent. Indigenous children in Peru, who have been forced to join guerrilla bands, have undergone long periods of forced political indoctrination. And others have suffered particularly brutal forms of induction. Some rebel groups in Cambodia and Mozambique turned children into fierce warriors by subjecting them to a brief period of terror and physical abuse—'socializing' them into violence. Much the same thing has been happening more recently in Sierra Leone, where in 1995 the Revolutionary United Front has been raiding villages to capture children into its ranks and force them to witness or take part in the torture and execution of their own relatives. Thus outlawed and brutalized, and often fed crack or other drugs, the children have been led to neighbouring villages to repeat the exercise.16

Children's actual duties in warfare cover the whole range of military activities. At relatively quiet times in camp this may be little more than cooking or carrying water. Being small and inconspicuous, children also have particular value as messengers or as spies. In Uganda in 1986, the National Resistance Army sent children into the capital to spot the government fortifications and when the shelling started, the children mingled with the fleeing crowds and threw hand-grenades at trucks full of government soldiers.17

And while children might be thought to be the people deserving greatest protection, as soldiers they are often considered the most expendable. During the Iran-Iraq war, child soldiers, for example, were sent out ahead in waves over minefields.18

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