“I can’t fall asleep because I am going back to the past in a dream. In there, the face of the people who were killed occurred to me and LRA chases me again.”
– Robert who was abducted by Lord’s Resistance Army –
Recently, the Islamic State released a video in which a child shot two supposed spies and repeatedly shot two men until they lay motionless. This released video brought huge global shock and many people were appalled by the fact that ISIS utilized a child to execute. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story because the child soldier issue in ISIS is just a tip of the iceberg. Since the late 20th century, child soldiers have been prevalently used in the armed-conflicted areas and countries particularly in Africa and Asia. There is no argument that we should not use child soldiers and we should protect them from the war. What has been happening, however, is exactly against our common sense.
Current status of Child soldiers
So who are child soldiers? The age of the child is quite controversial because it differs depending on each society. ‘The Convention on the Rights of the Child’, though, defined child as any person below the age of 18. Universally, it has been agreed that children below 18 require special protection due to their evolving physical and mental maturity.
It is hard to say the exact number of child soldiers because no commanders in armed groups want to show illegal action and thus, they try to conceal the fact of using child soldiers. Also, war and conflict cause force people to evacuate the area, which actually makes it hard to count the exact number of population. In this sense, we can only get tentative and speculative figures of the child soldiers. According to “The Human Rights Watch”, it is estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 children are currently serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces. Most of them are in Africa, Middle East and Southern East Asia since, as many reports indicate, war and conflict are highly inseparable with the use of child soldiers. There are so many countries where child soldiers are used.
Surprisingly, not only rebel groups, but even some governments recruit child soldiers for their specific purposes. As of 2012, it was reported that there are 8 government armies using child soldiers. Although United Nations signed action plans with some of the governments, it is not uncommon to see those countries breaking the agreement and using child soldiers again.
Recruitment of Child soldiers
Children have been recruited mostly by abduction and threat. Those are the typical strategies of rebel groups. LRA, which is a guerilla group against the government of Uganda, has been notorious for abducting a lot of children to use as sex slaves and soldiers. However, we cannot simply say that every child soldier is the passive victim of abduction. Gandhi said “Poverty is the worst form of violence”, and in this way, poverty paved the way for children to participate in the armed groups voluntarily. War causes poverty and poverty causes war again which creates a vicious cycle. As a result, this cycle forces children to grab a rifle as a mean of getting out of the poverty. Indeed, child soldiers mostly use their salary earned in military to support their family’s cost of living.
What is worse, many children lost their family members and even their houses. These environments are a critical factor for children to determine to join the armed groups to get food and refugee. In some cases, children wanted to join the rebel groups because they believe all of these excruciating conditions were caused by the incompetent government. Vice versa, other children joined the government army to seek revenge on the rebel groups for losing family members. Recent IS cases and the like showed that even religious and political colors influence children to be soldiers voluntarily.
The impact on children
It is no surprise that children get significantly affected by being soldiers. Prominently, many child soldiers are in life-threatening situations. Furthermore, since many armed groups tend to regard sex as a reward, a number of children have been suffering from AIDS in such countries. Some extreme armed groups even give children drugs before having a battle in order for them not to feel guilty and to overcome the fear of killing.
In addition, children have the invisible scar from being soldiers. Many children confessed that even though they get back to society, they feel humiliated and guilty. In some cases, they are even isolated, being called murderer by the member of their society. Moreover, they suffer from the trauma of being abused and killing someone. However, it does not mean that there is no hope for such children. Many people and media only have focused on the children’s vulnerability. They even label those children as a ‘Lost Generation’, claiming that these children cannot recover and they will not be able to lead the society in the future. Unlike majority’s belief, many children have shown that they actually have the ability of recovery although they get severely injured physically and mentally. However, it appears that they are not able to recover by themselves. Therefore, as they get free from armed groups, the local society, the government and even international organizations should make sure to meet their basic needs and more importantly provide proper education which is considered to be a crucial factor of recovering.
Even one child soldier is too many.
As discussed above, the issue of child soldiers is much more serious and severe than we think. At this point, here is seemingly insoluble question left; how to solve this issue? As child soldiers are significantly relevant with the war, it is true that this issue seems to be overwhelming and very complicated. Nevertheless, we cannot define it as just insoluble issue simply because it is about “children” who are considered the hope of our society. Very recently, one of the rebel groups in South Sudan, Cobra Faction, released 250 child soldiers. Many experts say that the main contribution of this demobilizing is persistent negotiation of UNICEF. However, we INDIGO believe that it is not safe to attribute it to only UNICEF itself. In various ways, there are “invisible hands” which in fact, help this kind of organization to move and work out. In that sense, in order to exterminate this issue, the effort of international organization and countries should be combined with the great and continuous attention of individuals. If so, we might be able to put an end to this issue which has been neglected for too long.
이대명 기자 firstname.lastname@example.org