child soldiers

Africa has known her fair share of civil wars. Unfortunately, that tragedy has persisted to such an extent that the continent is now associated with civil wars. Although some of these conflicts unfolded several years ago, like the Biafran War in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970, most of them erupted around the mid-1980s, when the rush for mineral resources (an activity ignited mainly by Western capitalism) unleashed that wave of cruelty, violence, massacre and trauma in Africa. Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, and, more recently, Ethiopia and Tigray are, or were, some of those “hot” zones in Africa. No one is spared and people of all ages are involved in these wars where they kill or get killed.  Adults, teenagers and children are soldiers, men and women are fighters or used as weapons to intimidate rival camps. Rape is used as a weapon of war, and, to crown it all, women and children are also made to carry loads (weapons, food stuff and others) for the combatants.

The issue of child soldiers has been debated at numerous fora. Some critics identify bigotry in who is called a child soldier. Such people consider the UN’s definition of a child soldier – anyone below the age of 18 and recruited by an armed group to fight or aid in a fight. It states, further, that children were conscripted by Napoleon for his armies in France in 1814 and thousands of children participated on all sides in World War I and World War II but no mention is made of child soldiers in such cases. Eurocentric analysists would say that those are remote cases in history, but such a silence could also be justified by the power of Western hegemony. What cannot be denied is that children deeply involved in armed conflicts is a painful sight, regardless of the country or the conflict.

In Africa, certain cases stand out, such as those of child soldiers who have been rescued and rehabilitated by international organizations like UNICEF. Sadly, many others remain traumatized and live a life of crime, addiction, participation in the sex trade, things that they would not have done had they not been forcefully recruited into one of the fighting camps. One example of the first case is Ishmael Beah from Sierra Leone who fought as a child soldier in his native country. After seeing his own father, mother and siblings executed, he was forced into the conflict as a child soldier at age 12 and killed people of all ages and genders. He went through a successful rehabilitation and was adopted by an American lady. He subsequently migrated to the United States of America where he was schooled, healed, and started a new and completely different life. He became an extraordinary motivational speaker advocating for the eradication of the child soldier phenomenon. He is admired by listeners whom he mesmerizes with the story of his life. What also adds to Beah’s achievements is his famous best seller, published in 2007, A Long Way Gone: The True Story of a Child Soldier, a memoir in which he presents all the stages of his life as a child soldier.

Readings and the media, today, reveal that not all child soldiers have such a successful “reconstruction” or improvement of their lives. Many are still battling with crippling vices, and one is forced to ask, “why do these child soldiers remain caught up in such a vicious, pitiful cycle”? Are international organizations tired of rescuing child soldiers in Africa? Are the national authorities making enough effort for the child soldiers to receive help? Two examples of such a failure which Canadian General Roméo Dallaire, who was commander of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Rwanda during the genocide, calls in his memoir “the failure of humanity”. One case that catches the reader’s attention is the situation of child soldiers in Liberia where little is being done to assist them. Two sad and telling examples are the post-war life of a girl and a boy who were soldiers. The girl shares: “when I was 14, I was forced out of school and into the war camp by soldiers. I was put on the front line and had to fight, I killed many people and became addicted to drugs during the war. Now that the war has ended, I am still addicted to drugs, prostitute myself, attack and kill people to take their property. We are receiving counselling from a UN-funded organization”. Two points stand out here. A counsellor who attends to this former child soldier laments the fact that although they are doing their best as counsellors, these victims of war need a genuine counselling centre, and to be re-located to a facility that provides decent accommodation and allows continuous monitoring. These two elements are crucial since those who leave the counselling sessions generally go back to their street life. The counsellor then revealed that they lack funding and explained that there was not enough money to assist the child soldiers to help them achieve healing.  As a result, such young people are called “zogo”, a slur in Liberian society meaning that someone is a “good for nothing, unfit to be in a society”. The young girl, herself, states that people like her need assistance from the government to “flush the drugs out of our body so that I can return to where I was before the war”. The statements of the counsellor and the former child soldier indicate that international organizations are not allocating enough funds to the treatment of child soldiers in Liberia, and the Liberian Government is not pulling its weight, to provide the treatment these victims need. The second example of the inadequacy of the assistance given to former child soldiers in Liberia is shown by the life of a young man, who is still battling with the trauma generated by his role in that war. He says, “I took away mothers’, fathers’, and children’s lives”. Reports from the WHO state that more than 40 percent of people in Liberia live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More than 25,000 were killed and less than 1 percent of those affected have access to mental health services. Sadly enough, many boy soldiers, like the one mentioned above, returned home only to be ostracized by their families and communities. No demobilization and reintegration were attempted at the national level in order to give them a second chance in life and they were stigmatized forever. The question that pops up here is: if the definition of a child soldier apparently depends on the part of the globe one comes from, should the treatment of former child soldiers also be unequally implemented, depending on countries or periods (specific years)? Should such a primordial mission rely on the policies of individual countries or international organizations? 


Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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