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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Child Soldiers


Child Soldiers

Young, armed, dangerous and invisible

By Craig Rice
OW Contributor

"In peace, children inter their parents; war violates the order of nature and causes parents to inter their children. "

Herodotus, the Histories of Herodotus, Greek historian and traveler (484 BC - 430 BC)

Combat voyeurs and real toys.

Media saturation has brought the horrors of war right into the living rooms. In our electronically enlightened state, the classical view of the glories of armed conflict has lost much of its luster, as most of us become aware of its horrific results. But even in a by gone era of delusions of grandeur the general consensus was always that unarmed civilians and especially children (also known in some circles as the rule of innocents) should be excluded from the ravages of war.
Modern weaponry, especially assault rifles such as the AK-47 and the M-16, are dramatically lighter in weight and so simple in design that even prepubescent children can operate and maintain them.
The proliferation of illegal arms sales has made these weapons incredibly cheap and easy to obtain as well, making it simple for impoverished enclaves from Somalia to South Los Angeles to gain access to formidable arsenals and raising the body count as well (one report sponsored by the United Nations estimates that between 35 and 70 million AK-47s are currently in circulation throughout the world).

Warfare and the “mini-me.”

The increase in carnage has in turn taken its toll on available troops, meaning that additional energy must be spent in finding replacements. In war torn hamlets across the globe, this means that depletion of the adult population logically causes the pool of eligible prospects to get progressively younger. This is true on every continent in which so called "developing nations" exist, although the circumstances of recruitment may differ with changes in the geography. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and else where in the Middle East youngsters normally preparing of junior high school speak reverently about their desire to seek death for Allah (Shahada). Peru's Sendero Luminoso (loosely translated as the "Shining Path") began as a Maoist terrorist organization dedicated to the overthrow of the country's bourgeois institutions before it came to the attention of the United Nations for recruiting pre-teens to murder and, it is alleged, drink their victim's blood. Similar stories have been documented in Burma, Bosnia and Croatia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and a host of other countries in nearly every imaginable corner of the globe.
The conscription of children presents distinct advantages over their adult counter parts. Because of their youth and vulnerability they are more pliable to be molded into obedient soldiers. Child soldiers find their way into the ranks via a number of ways. In addition to the conscripts already mentioned, others are abducted or merely turned over by their own families. Most of the regions that regularly experience armed strife are impoverished economically, so often parents with large families often reason it better for everyone involved if there's one less mouth to feed, especially if a financial incentive is offered.
Once brought into the fold, a child's impressionable nature can be easily shaped to enhance their operational value, since a youngster is less likely to appreciate the hazards of warfare then would an adult. Children are easy to manipulate and less likely to question orders. Some military commanders have been known to exploit the naturally reckless disposition of their warrior charges by lowering their inhibitions with drugs or alcohol before sending them into battle. Since most of these armies that utilize child soldiers are guerrilla forces or insurgents fighting against established regimes and as a rule use irregular military tactics, they generally do not fear reprisals in the form of legal sanctions by governing bodies such as the Geneva Convention of the U.N. For all practical purposes, their troops are invisible children.


The destruction of childhood.

"Why is it that the worst of everything that is evil and inhuman is to be found in Africa? What is wrong with us Africans?"
-Graça Machel, author of the landmark “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” report to the United nations.


Because so much of Africa is, in one way or another, the world's poster child for instability, the military use of children takes on special poignancy. Insurgent forces utilizing child soldiers have been reported in Angola, The Congo, The Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and especially, as we shall see, in Uganda. Even after throwing off the shackles of colonialism, African nations have been hindered by corruption, violence, and volatility. Generally regarded as the world's poorest inhabited continent, African countries chronically occupy the bottom of the United Nations' Human Development Report, which annually chronicles the economic standing of the world's nations.
The vast majority of African nations have been consistently unable to sustain democratic governments, which goes a long way towards explaining the apparently permanent cycle of coups, military dictatorships, and tribal uprisings. Those who do attain power have displayed a remarkable consistency in ignoring existing ethnic conflicts or igniting new ones (a condition that has been witnessed in our current struggles in Iraq). It is no wonder then, that the Dark Continent experienced more than 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations (many of them aggravated by outside influences, to be sure) in the interval between 1960 and 1990.

Decades of civil war.

While Americans may quibble about the mounting costs of its Iraqi War (over 2,400 deaths thus far) our combat history pales in comparison to Angola, which experienced a near continuous three decade state of civil after 1975. Best approximation of the carnage there puts the death toll at upwards of 1 million, while the unavoidable damage to the administrative and economic infrastructure as well its social institutions, have further crippled a government that was already considered weak and fragmented, and of course insuring that its economic output per capita remains among the world's lowest. While the legal age for compulsory military service is 17 years of age, it is widely known that under aged boys and girls were regularly pressed into service, with girls pulling double duty, both as soldiers and as concubines or "surrogate wives" to relieve their superior's sexual urges. Tony Tate, principle researcher at the Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org/) reckons that while Burma and Columbia led the world in the recruitment of child soldiers, Congo stands at the top of this dubious category on the African continent.
One-up-man-ship is a proclivity embraced by war mongers as well. The Second Congo War (1998 to 2003) described as the deadliest since World War II, resulted in the deaths of over three million people according to Amnesty International; along with 40,000 cases of rape (rape is widely regarded as a weapon of war here). Despite the formal end of hostilities, sporadic fighting continues, with reports of up to a thousand people a day dying during one period in 2004. UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) workers have provided intervention for thousands of former child soldiers at "reintegration centers", which attempt the monumental task of easing these former combatants back into society. UNICEF was also forced to intercede when steps were taken to execute teenaged combatants for alleged war crimes (international law states that no one should be executed for crimes committed as children). A cursory perusal of the web at www.congovision.com/ images/childsoldiers.jpg gives an idea of the outrages these children have witnessed. Reflecting it's colonial history, the website is in French, but the graphic images of decapitations, dismemberment, and mutilations transcend any language barrier.


Both ends of the gun.

"Children who have known pain know how to inflict it."
- Michael Oruni, director of the Gulu Children of War Rehabilitation Center.

And so it goes, with similar stories that start as rumor and old wives tales, then investigated and confirmed as truth by various and sundry humanitarian agencies to be documented as gospel. Comparable narratives have been accumulated from the Ivory Coast, Mozambique, and perhaps most famously thanks to the silver screen, Rwanda. Particularly provocative are reports from Uganda. Thanks to its most famous son, the incorrigible Idi Amin, Uganda is no stranger to the outrageous and profane. Since his forced exile in 1979 however, a number of his countrymen have proven themselves more then up to the task of carrying on his gristly legacy.
As a rule Africa has never been known for its commitment to egalitarianism between the genders, but through a combination of raw charisma, military genius, and self promotion Alice Auma fashioned herself into a twisted version of Joan of Arc for the 20th Century. Born into the Acholi tribe of Northern Uganda, Auma converted to Catholicism shortly before turning 30 in the mid 1980s, and claimed to become possessed by a Christian spirit named Lakwena, who instructed her to form the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), which challenged the government's National Resistance Army forces and won a number of spectacular early victories as well as popular support among the various northern ethnic groups. This in turn enabled her to attract new recruits (including children) to her cause before the tide turned against her, forcing her into exile in Kenya, where she remains today running a refugee camp and, it is alleged, continues to engage in child trafficking.
Emerging in the wake of her demise, Joseph Kony, another self proclaimed spirit medium who led a combination rebel paramilitary group and religious movement called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). A practicing polygamist who incorporates elements of Christianity, Islam and especially tribal witchcraft into his religious practices, Kony and the L.R.A. are alleged to have abducted upwards of 20,000 children into service in his army and as sex slaves. Continuing a tradition started by his predecessor Alice Auma, Kony indoctrinates his adherents with the belief that the application of holy oils will make them bullet proof in battle. He is said to be fond of awarding child concubines as prizes to commanders who accomplish their military objectives. Among the 12 or so spirits Kony regularly consults for his military campaigns and tactical decisions, one is that of the late martial arts movie star Bruce Lee (!). The L.R.A. has become noteworthy for shooting and cutting off people's lips, ears, hands, feet, or breasts, and, adding insult to injury, force-feeding the severed body parts to their victims' families. Using children to commit these atrocities serves as a glue to cement them to the cause as the perpetrators are told their parents will never accept them after the commission of these crimes. This of course continues a vicious cycle since, as every good clinical knows, those who suffer abuse often grow up to be abusers themselves.

Spiritual warfare.

"In a disparate world, children are a unifying force capable of bringing us all together in support of a common ethic."
-Graça Machel

The traditionally held belief that waging war is the ultimate expression of unleashed male testosterone has generated hope that, as women step forward in the political arena they will produce a kinder, gentler style of governmental administration. Specifically on the issue of the use of children in military operations, in some circles there is the widely held belief that their natural maternal instincts would prohibit the widespread exploitation that is the norm in many of today's areas of conflict. Moral precepts have proven to be transitory, with the time-honored admonishment of chivalrous conduct towards women and children being amended as the fairer sex proves itself able to set new standards of viciousness and savagery. The antics of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (famous dubbed the "Iron Lady" by her Soviet opponents during the Cold War) during the Falkland Island invasion of the early 1980s, and especially her involvement with the sinking of the Argentine war ship, the General Belgrano (resulting in the deaths of 323 sailors) by a United Kingdom submarine has proven that women can be as militaristic as their male counterparts.
Tony Tate of the Human Rights Watch stresses that while it has been practiced for generations, the military use of children as such is a newly conceived idea crime. Graça Machel, wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, set a precedent with the ground breaking study Impact of Armed Conflict on Children (1994), and since then momentum has progressed via reports, money for relief efforts, and global legislation. The end of the 20th Century witnessed an increase in networking and co-operation among African states, although the allure of the Dark Continent's natural resources all but insures (continued) outside meddling. The use of children in military operations is sanctioned by a number of international legal rules of conduct. With hostilities dissipating, the international Human Rights Watch (hrw.org/) has, in tandem with the World Bank, amassed over $33 million to assist the government in the rehabilitation of these unfortunates.
This past October, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Kony (whom profilers suspect suffers from multiple-personality disorder, or the more recent diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder) and the primary leadership of the L.R.A. for crimes against humanity including crimes against humanity and the accompanying charges of murder, sexual enslavement and rape. Thomas Lubanga, a militia leader for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (noteworthy for demanding that every family contribute to the war effort with the donation of money, a cow or a child) in the above mentioned Second Congo War has the distinction of becoming the first person put on trial by the ICC for “conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years” along with (among other outrages) the murder of UN peacekeepers. His trial is under way in the Netherlands as this article goes to print.
Celebrity activists like Don Cheadle and Danny Glover have recently stepped up advocacy for the children of Uganda. Additionally, "The Name Campaign" project and website (http://www.creativevisions.org/name/) has been gaining momentum with its strategy of imprinted the names of tens of thousands of children that have been abducted on silver dogtags to raise awareness about their plight in the developed world. The catch phase for this public service campaign is "Speak their Names, Tell their Story, Bring them Home." To raise over all awareness about the practice of recruiting and using children in martial conflict, Red Hand Day was initiated on February 12, 2002, as an annual commemoration day by the International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. Primary tactics used include demonstrations and public protests, but the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers is open to all creative actions and solutions to get the word out. Questions about donations of money, time, ectera may be answered at www.redhandday.org/.

Link Posted by jebratt :: Thursday, May 04, 2006 :: 0 comments

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