Thousands of children, as young as nine, are fighting in wars and conflicts around the world that they neither know their roots nor the fruits – if any – that will be harvested if such wars come to an end. These young boys and girls are spread across the world, from Latin America to Asia, from Europe to Africa.
But the problem is mostly critical in Africa.
Armed conflict in countries like Sudan, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have all seen the forceful use of children as soldiers. In Uganda, a 22-year period of war between Uganda’s Lord Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government saw Ugandan children being recruited in massive numbers to the serve the self-seeking warlords.
The children bore the brunt of constant conflict, disease and death, not only as victims; they were also forced participants in atrocities and egregious crimes that the rebels waged on villagers. LRA leader Joseph Kony wanted to overthrow the government and rule Uganda under the Biblical Ten Commandments. To achieve this, he needed a strong contingent of armed troops to help him fight against the government. When getting qualified men ready and willing to serve him proved to be a tall order, he resorted to raiding villages where his minions barefacedly abducted children from their relatively tranquil homes and forced them to serve in the cruel and intolerable ranks of the LRA.
The children, though expected to perform their duty in reigning terror on their once friends and villagers are sometimes beaten in the bush without mercy, made to carry heavy loads on their heads and tow ammunition and arms for long and tedious distances and also forced to assemble out in the cold each day as they get commands on where to strike next. Although many of these children are recruited by force, some join after seeing their friends get killed for turning down such an “offer”, while others join voluntarily to escape from domestic violence, poverty, lack of jobs and shortage of education opportunities. The desire to avenge the killing of relatives or other violence arising from war has also been an important motive.
The LRA abducted thousands of children to use as soldiers and slaves throughout their 22-year war with the government of Uganda. They also killed thousands of people and displaced about 2 million. Girls as young as 11 years were not spared as they added to the statistics of young girls who got raped by men on a nightly basis.
This ruthless exploitation of children by such armed rebels, government-backed paramilitary groups, militias and self-defence units to further their own material and political ends stands out as one of the most grotesque human rights abuses Uganda has witnessed. Although some of them might have ran away from the rebels, or helped out by human rights bodies, the pain from thorough beating and the anguish of rape, the thought of having taken the life of an innocent person and the fear of having a disease are still fresh in the minds of many.
Most of the children have even lost confidence in living a normal life, while the society attests that teaching or transforming children who once served as child soldiers and have suffered violent traumatic experiences, is a daily challenge. In some cases, music and dance have become a form of escape for many kids and given them hope that they can put their LRA experiences behind them and begin new lives.
In spite of being universally condemned as an unacceptable and abhorrent act, despite some progress being made, efforts to end the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict is too little, and even too late for many children who suffer from psychological trauma as a result of what they were forced to do.
Governments and non-governmental organizations must step up their efforts in not only condemning those who force children into this abuse, but the recruiters must be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Appropriate support, both economical and psychological must also be accorded to the children affected and their families to help these children who are literally bleeding in the inside, crying on the out and wondering why the world is so cold.
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