Introducing the Child Soldiers Project
By: Andrew Benson Greene Jr, Coordinator, iEARN-Sierra Leone and Bill Belsey,
Children, on account of their special vulnerability are the most seriously affected. Therefore, their active roles played in conflicts and other forms of hostilities is crucially a disturbing factor that must raise an eyebrow and be taken seriously. This stands to justify the ever increasing attention that the subject of child combatants or child soldiers is now given in many countries of the world.
It is relevant to raise awareness of the plight of children used as soldiers, and to galvanize government, local and international NGOs and civil society efforts to protect children affected by armed conflict.
Article 38 of the convention on the rights of the child states "parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child." The rest of this chapter elaborates the necessity for keeping children aloof from being partakers in armed conflicts or being protected from the egregious consequences of wars.
In Sierra Leone, eighteen years has been set as the minimum age of recruitment for the new proposed army for the country. Recruitment into the armed forces of Sierra Leone was on a voluntary basis, until recently. All ethnic groups were supposed to be represented in the armed forces before the 1997 military coup. It has been emphasized that the newly constituted state army shall be free from political strings, disciplined and will be made up of proportional representatives of the country and regional groupings.
It is no mincing of words to say that Sierra Leone is amongst one of the countries that has the world's worst records for recruiting children as soldiers. Between 1992 and 1996, the period of the worst fighting between the Government forces and the RUF [Revolutionary United Front], an estimated 4,500 children were forced to fight on both sides. In fact a weekly locally produced newspaper of Sierra Leone reported that "more than 60 per cent of [a group] of 1,000 fighters" screened by the Disarmament, Demob-ilisation and Resettlement Committee before the military coup of 25 May 1997 were children.
The rebel war that first unleashed untold sufferings to the inhabitants of small towns and villages necessitated their arise in defence of there land, life and property. This act of self defense by local inhabitants of villages and small towns against rebel onslaughts, gave birth to auxiliary Civil Defence Force that backed up the fledgling forces loyal to the government and people. The Civil Defence Forces (CDF) are made up of a number of tribal fighting groups, namely the 'Kamajors' in the South and East of the country, and 'Kapras', 'Donsos' and 'Tamaboros' in the North. These societies of traditional hunters as in the case of the Kamajors, have within their overall structure, male children who go through an initiation process. This initiation is now used to determine that a child is entering adulthood and can be part of the fighting Kamajors. These child fighters tend to be older than 8 years of age.
During his visit to Sierra Leone in June 1998, Mr Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, obtained commitments from the government and from CDF leaders that the CDF would cease recruitment of children under 18 years of age, begin demobilization of child soldiers, provide special protection to child combatants, and create a joint task force comprising representatives from the government, the Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), UN agencies, and relevant NGOs.
Furthermore, the government announced plans for the establishment of a new national army the recruitment and training for which would be entrusted to ECOMOG. The government specifically promised not to recruit under 18s into this new force. It has also been estimated that their forces in the eastern Kailahun district alone numbered 3,000 child soldiers.
Moreover, the use of children as soldiers forms part of deliberate military strategy, for a CDF leader Mr Zangalaywah, was quoted to have said "We don't trust adults quite so much because many have breached the rules governing our militia group and so they get killed by the enemy."
The CDF boss further opined that "these kids are very brave on the front line" and that they keep the laws governing the conduct of the militia like abstinence from sex, drugs and looting when in combat. UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy herself learned the strength of these rules when a child combatant refused to shake her hand "because he was not allowed to touch a woman." In fact, Deputy Defence Minister of Sierra Leone Sam Hinga Norman, himself a Kamajor chief, told Ms Bellamy that he wished "with all his heart to disarm all children", but explained that he "lacked the means for now". In actual fact, children are led in armed conflicts because of the economic basis and low income that they will have to allot them.
No doubt there has been also continued concern about the ongoing armed deployment of underage boys and girls. Many including international humanitarian observers have expressed grave concern about reports that children were being recruited in Liberia for fighting in Sierra Leone, and there has been steady appeal to stop recruiting children. Ironically, some of the child Kamajors interviewed by journalists said they would want to become soldiers in adult life as well. "I am 14 and a rebel killer. I don't want to be demobilized, because the rebels know I kill them mercilessly" said Sandi who is based in Daru, a military garrison in the East of the country.
Most children who have been forcefully conscripted into the rebel movement and often led to turn their guns against those upon whose survival their welfare depends have been drugged and abused with cocaine and hard drugs. Added to this most of the rebels are children not older than 14, who have lived under the influence and the effect of drugs and alcohol. These were little kids, boys as well as girls around seven, nine, twelve years old who were among the invaders of Freetown in early January of 1999. They totted guns bigger than them and felt they had power. Some were sent as spies to locate ECOMOG positions that fought along side loyal forces of the government and native militia hunters.
Finally, as we start the child soldiers project, we are hopeful that valuable contributions shall come both from our students including other students and teachers of iEARN who are supportive of putting an end to the misery associated with child combatants. Childhood destruction through child armed conflicts the destruction of a child's innocence, sense of love, tolerance and the immersion of such children in violence must be stopped! Our situation in Sierra Leone, like many others demands critical reappraisal. Where child combatants range from the forcefully conscripted child whose swiftness helps stir the rebel movement and gives them a stronghold in their barbaric acts, to the volunteer child soldier of a local militia embroidered in a war in defense of his motherland, or a child below the age of 18, armed by government to replace untrustworthy adult soldiers, there is need for much thoughts to be given in this labyrinthine child combatant situation.
With warm regards from iEARN Sierra Leone,
Andrew Benson Greene Jr.
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