The Invisible Child Soldiers

Written by Anam Gill on . Posted in Anam's blog: Global issues, E-Magazine, General Information, Green Economy, News, News & Updates, Publications, Take Action

Guy Oliver IRINPhoto Source: Guy Oliver/IRIN

Becoming a soldier at the age of seven on the orders of his uncle, a chief in the North Kivu Province in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Dikembe Muamba* stole his first gun at the age of 10. Dikembe Muamba* told IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) that he led 50 people both children and adults as a captain at the age of 14.

Spending few years as his uncle’s bodyguard he was later enlisted into PARECO (Alliance of Resistant Congolese Patriots) which emerged in 2007 from diverse and varied communities of North Kivu province like Hutu, Hunde, Nande, Nyanga and Tembo .

Muamba and many other children, having the right to live a decent living, can tell you how many battles they have fought without hesitation. For Muamba it was 45 but he is not sure how many people he killed, he reluctantly adds that the youngest person he ever killed was a girl who was about 6 years old and she was shooting at him.

Formerly known as Zaire, Democratic Republic of Congo is no stranger to instability and conflict. For decades the political violence has wrecked the country. After the Rwandan Civil war in 1994 the violence intensified.  Extraordinarily complex the conflict that involved huge numbers of rebel groups fighting each other, children are being  snatched by rebel groups from their parents to become soldiers. The estimates given by UN states that 15 to 30% of all newly conscripted combatants are under the age of 18 in the DRC army. It is also estimated that one in ten children or 30,000 child soldiers are found in DRC. Scarring them mentally and physically for life the child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are forced to commit the most appalling acts of murder. Female child soldiers are frequently used as sexual slaves by the commanders.

When we talk about the military use of children it should be noted that there are around 120,000 child soldiers in Africa according to UNICEF. That comprises half the total of 300,000 around the world including countries like Colombia, Myanmar, Afghanistan and many other places. The dangers for children have been heightened by the recent developments in warfare. During the last decade the estimated figures of child victims killed, physically and psychologically traumatized and left homeless have crossed millions.

Is this the civilized world we dreamt of?  With numerous other injustices spread across the globe the facts and figures related to child soldiers come as an abysmal truth, very hard to face. Maybe it is very easy for me writing about it by quoting these statistics, how difficult it would have been to live the hell which these children have been forced to live. This unimaginable truth makes me cringe and once again I am haunted by the stories of decapitation and mutilation done by young children. Instead of a pen and paper they were introduced to weapons. When they were supposed to learn to love, they were taught to hate. The never ending cycle of violence didn’t solve any problem so far it just made the situation worse with each passing day.

We have many examples in history where child soldiers have been extensively involved in military campaigns and combats. Since 1970s a number of international conventions came into effect trying to limit the participation of children in armed conflicts nevertheless it has been reported that the participation of children in armed conflicts is widespread.  According to UNOCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) half of the world’s child soldiers are in Africa. Many of these children are forced into conflict due to poverty, sold by their parents, tricked and kidnapped.  In Burundi hundreds of child soldiers served in an armed rebel Hutu group in 2004. Children younger than 16 were also recruited in the Burundese military. In Central African Republic between 2001 and 2003 children served in armed rebel groups. In Chad child soldiers are fighting with Chadian military and rebel forces. In Cote d’Ivoire during 2002 civil war, children were recruited by both sides. Child soldiers were also used by Rwandan government forces and paramilitaries in 2002. Visiting Sierra Leone and Liberia during the rebuilding phase made me visit some camps with war amputees, young people without arms and legs told their stories of rapes, murders and other tortures. Years of their lives have been wasted by the wars. This war talk which makes some label many other like myself as idealists and irrational beings, just because we think that war is not a solution and it fuels misery, should visit these places and listen to the stories of these invisible people.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in natural resources and has the world’s second largest rain forest. This second largest country in Africa with 75 million falls at the bottom of two major indices. Languishing at the bottom of 2012 UNDP Human Development Index and Global Hunger Index, Democratic Republic of Congo is struggling with the issues of HIV and AIDS. With all these serious issues affecting the nation the child soldiers coming in the backdrop makes Democratic Republic of Congo a vulnerable state in need of stability and reforms. Having one of the highest rates of child soldiers all over the world Democratic Republic of Congo has ratified a number of international treaties protecting the rights of children yet the figures indicating child victims to war and abuse tell a different story.

In 2001 Democratic Republic of Congo ratified UN Security Council Resolution 1341 which called for an end to recruitment of children, ensuring their rehabilitation and reintegration. All the ratifications proved nothing but a public relations exercise.  The UN Security Council convenes regularly to discuss reports and pass resolutions under the title of children in armed conflicts. These various resolutions being passed in the late 2000 that request action plans for monitoring, reporting and compliance are not enough. With regards to Article 77.2 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions which was adopted in 1977 it was mentioned that the parties should take “feasible” measures to ensure that children under the age of 15 don’t take part in armed conflicts. Instead of stating the “feasibility” there should be a complete ban on the recruitment of children in armed forces. The various written documents endorsing child protection should not just be a matter of closed room discussions and written documentation. The difficulty is in the implementation of all these laws. With the lawlessness in the affected countries and rising corruption the proper implementation is nowhere in sight.

In an October 2013 report of UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) it was mentioned that in the past five years about 10,000 children have been separated from armed groups. In the same period nearly 1000 more children were conscripted and their use in the armed groups has remained “systemic”.

AFPPhoto Source: AFP

Use of children in armed forces is one of the most repugnant practices around the world and according to UNICEF’s definition of a child soldier the minimum age has now been changed from under 15 to less than 18 years of age. The phenomenon of having children in combat is not new in the history and throughout history we can find many examples where child combatants have wasted their lives in this malice. A notable example in the history can be of Hitler Jugden (Hitler Youth) during World War II.

As a human race, presumably we have evolved from our barbaric stage many years ago and as we embark on the 21st , more civilized century we should sign a pact where we promise to let go our old savage ways. With the technological and other advancements where the human species have discovered so many hidden secrets these same species fail to acknowledge and understand a basic truth about life. That truth is very simple and does not need an equation to decipher and it states that we need to live in peace with each other. We need to instill love and empathy for each other. Let us for once try to put the broken pieces together when we can.

Let us take a step forward honoring Article 12 of Conventions on the Rights of the Child which calls on states to recognize the right of children to participate in the processes that affect them. Their right is currently snatched away from them even in the reintegration programs of the former child soldiers. It is about moving past the dominant view of the child soldiers as passive victims to their meaningful participation. It should be about looking past their identity as victims and asking them about the complexity of their past and envisioning a future that builds on the positive and negative experiences they had in the past. When it comes to reintegration of child soldiers it is important to look beyond the victim-perpetrator binary. These children should be given space to discuss the feelings of guilt and remorse placing it in the context of war, insecurity and poverty. It is about putting a positive and productive approach into practice. The life changing experiences of war are a complex subject to deal with and no doubt need sound programs and initiatives.

The International Criminal Court’s 2012 conviction of militia leader Thomas Lubanga for recruiting child soldiers under the age of 15 years in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo between 2002 – 2003 sends a strong message. The message is clear that those who will recruit children in armed conflicts will be held accountable. There are many Thomas Lubangas out there who need to be held accountable for their misdeeds.

Since the war ended in 2002 the armed conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo involving national army and various other armed groups have unlawfully recruited boys and girls using them in various hostilities. The intensification of the conflict in late 2011 to early 2012 led to new waves of child recruitment in armed groups.

There is a need to deal with this growing issue where many national and international forces are working in solidity with the mafia warlords. The use of small arms should also be monitored and curtailed which makes it easier for young children to use weapons. The source of the entire problem is the illegal arms trade that gives power to this growing militia everywhere. Through willingness from national and international community and proper check and balance this issue can be dealt and the suffering of thousands of invisible children can be brought to an end.

*A pseudo name used

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Anam Gill

Believes that empathy and compassion can trigger change. A media professional passionate and committed towards issues of human rights and social justice.