When children see life through a gun barrel

IN Uganda, they are called kadogos - the little ones. They are child soldiers, gun-toting boys and girls who fought and killed their countrymen in a civil war that brought a new president to power in January 1986. Like many of Uganda's child soldiers, 15-year-old James joined up with the resistance forces of Yoweri Museveni after his parents were murdered by government troops. James was 12 when he joined the rebels. Within a year, he was fighting shoulder to shoulder with adults in the battle to ``liberate'' Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Today, even though most of Uganda is at peace under President Museveni, James still carries a gun. He is a bodyguard for an Army commander.

``I would like to go to school, but I need help,'' says the short, round-faced child on a balmy night in Uganda. He is waiting outside a hotel for his commander. James is friendly and curious, but hesitant to say more, especially when a hotel employee tells him that his commander forbids him to let a Western photographer take his picture.

Finally, he amends his comments about school. ``I am happy in the Army,'' he says. ``They are the reason I survived.''

In the eyes of many adult Ugandans, kadogos like James are heroes of the revolution. They say the child soldiers fought with bravery and discipline, and they are grateful to them for their role in bringing to an end 20 years of torture and persecution under previous regimes.

But in the eyes of children's-rights activists, the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 child soldiers in Uganda represent a bitter reality in today's world warfare: the escalating use of children as warriors, fighting adults' battles on adults' terms, learning - sometimes before they even learn to read and write - how to kill another human being.

According to a 1983 report by the Peace Union of Finland - one of the few studies undertaken on child soldiers - children are bearing arms in at least 20 nations: from Nicaragua, where they fight with the contra forces trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime, to Iran, where they are sent to war by the thousands with the promise that death in battle guarantees them entrance to paradise.

Some children are recruited for standing armies; others are fighting with rebels. But wherever they are, they have been trained by adults to be the perpetrators of violence. They fire guns that they are often scarcely big enough to shoulder. They kill the enemy. They blow up tanks. Sometimes, they blow up themselves.

``These children are not being treated as human beings, but as resources [for fighting wars],'' says Neil Boothby, a United States psychologist who has spent six years studying children in war. ``It's the most blatant form of exploitation.''

Child soldiers are not a modern phenomenon; children have followed adults into the battlefield for centuries. Dr. Boothby, one of only a few experts worldwide on child soldiers, cites the case of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia in the 18th century. On one occasion, when he rallied his troops into battle with the cry, ``Come children, die with me for the fatherland,'' his words were addressed to an army that included soldiers in their early teens.

According to researchers like Boothby, however, the deliberate recruitment and use of children in battle has intensified in the 20th century. This is largely because of the growth of guerrilla warfare and the development of the concept of ``total war'' - the idea that the goal being fought for is so important that all the resources at one's command are put to use.

OF the 40 armed conflicts in the world today, almost all - with the notable exception of the Iran-Iraq war - are civil wars. Most of these wars are being fought in the third world. Many of them involve guerrilla fighters who are waging ideological ``total wars'' - and who are recruiting civilian populations, including children, to help them achieve their ends.

Although experts have studied children who are victims of war, there has been very little research done on children who actually fight wars. No one can say for sure what the long-term effects of war will be on a child soldier.

But the few children's-rights advocates who have done research in this area say the potential harm to the individual and to humanity is sobering. What happens, they ask, to a child who learns during his most impressionable years that the way to resolve conflict is through the barrel of a gun? What sort of relationships and what sense of community does a child have when some of his earliest years have been spent fearing and killing ``the enemy''?

``How do they come to perceive the world?'' asks Jennifer Schirmer, a US anthropologist who has worked with Chilean children who have witnessed or experienced torture under that country's military regime. ``What sort of psyche does militarization create?

``We're escalating [the possibility] of mental illness,'' warns Ms. Schirmer, who teaches at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. ``We're upping the ante of what kinds of experiences people can live with or not live with.''

In one of the few studies done on child soldiers - a study of children recruited by Cambodia's brutal communist Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s - Boothby discovered disturbing signs of paranoia and psychosis.

THE children, who joined the Khmer Rouge forces - sometimes against their will - when they were as young as six and seven years old, participated in the killing of millions of their countrymen. After the Khmer Rouge fell from power, many of the child soldiers joined Cambodian civilians in refugee camps in Thailand. There, says Boothby, when the children came face to face with those who had suffered under the Khmer Rouge, they began to ``unravel psychologically.''

``Compared with orphans and other children, the child soldiers were by far the most disturbed victims of war,'' says Boothby, who interviewed children while they were in the refugee camps and after they were resettled in the US. ``It has something to do with losing a sense of morality and then trying to regain it. Their worlds literally fall apart.

``It's a moral problem,'' he insists, ``when kids are told it's OK to kill, and are encouraged to kill, by adults. Initially, these kids were reluctant to kill. It's as if they had some moral voice inside them saying, `No.' But once they broke through that inhibition, they acted out of rage. It obliterated what was once moral reasoning.''

Children's-rights advocates say that the exploitation of children as soldiers is a particularly tricky issue to tackle. Under a 1977 amendment to an international agreement known as the Geneva Convention, humanitarian law forbids the use of children under 15 years of age as soldiers. But leaders of many developing countries argue that the Convention is a Western-biased document that does not take into account differing cultural mores.

In mostly rural and tribalistic countries like Afghanistan, guns are commonly used in hunting and self-defense. Children are taught how to use them by the age of 4 or 5. Commanders of the Afghan mujahideen - resistance fighters - opposing the Soviet occupation of their country, say they do not actively recruit young soldiers. But they say it is only natural for a boy of 13 or 14 to join in what Afghans see as a Muslim jihad (holy war) against Soviet invaders. One commander calls fighting jihad ``a duty.''

``Even parents cannot prevent their children from volunteering for jihad,'' says Haji Enyatullah, a proud, stern Afghan resistance commander whose force of 300 men includes five boys under the age of 15. ``The parent would be in a position of mistake, of sin.''

Nine-year-old Ajmal dreams of the day that he will be able to leave his home in a sun-baked refugee camp in northern Pakistan and join the mujahideen in Afghanistan. He says that he will go when he is 12; his grandfather says he should go as soon as he can carry and fire a gun.

``The Russian is the enemy of our prophet,'' says Ajmal, a small, solemn boy. His grandfather drills him on how to answer a reporter's questions until the reporter interrupts and asks the boy to speak in his own words.

``They want to destroy our religion and our culture, so we are fighting them,'' he says with the careful cadence of a child reciting his lessons. ``I am not afraid for this reason, because I want to fight for Islam.''

Ajmal asks permission to sing a song he has been taught at school, where he and his classmates learn about fighting and jihad. The room is still, except for the buzzing of flies in the afternoon heat. Ajmal sings in a clear, steady voice. The song is about a soldier who fights jihad. The lyrics are chilling.

``You are sleeping in soft beds, I am fighting jihad,'' sings the boy. ``Your children are playing. But believe me, I am playing in blood.

``You are sleeping in your bed,'' he sings, staring straight ahead. ``Believe me, I am swimming in blood.''

In Uganda, kadogos don't fight much anymore. Some young soldiers are at the last battlefront in the north of the country, but most of the kadogos roam the streets of Kampala. They are all still attached to their Army units. Discipline is not as strict as it was in the jungle during the revolution, and a few have wound up in jail. Two boys, one nine, one 14, are being held for murder.

After Mr. Museveni came to power in January 1986, Western aid agencies, led by the then local UNICEF representative, lobbied to get the children back into civilian life. But Museveni has decided that the kadogos will remain in the Army and attend a special military school. The planned school will include regular classes, military training, and a continuation of the political education taught in the bush.

``It'd be very difficult for them to fit in to a civilian school,'' says William Pike, who has known Museveni for years and now edits New Vision, the government newspaper. ``They're old beyond their years.

``It'd be very difficult for them to work with children their own age,'' says Mr. Pike, a former British journalist. ``It'd be humiliating in a sense to go to school when you're 12 or 13 and be in a class with seven-year-olds, especially when you've fought to liberate your country.''

Despite concerns voiced by some aid officials about the future mental and emotional stability of the kadogos, Pike contends that the children are ``not traumatized people.''

``I don't think there is a time bomb here,'' he says. ``I mean, one has to judge things intuitively. And intuitively, if you meet these kids - well, perhaps one should be more worried about children who've had their parents killed and not been in the Army.''

Relief workers in Uganda are working to help the thousands of orphaned and malnourished children who were victims of the years of fighting. And some of them admit that children taken in by the Army may have a stronger sense of identity and purpose than children who were not. But children's-rights advocates still worry about what will happen to the child soldiers when they grow up, when they begin to come to terms with their violent pasts.

``What will their marriages be like? How will they treat their children?'' asks Boothby. ``Human culture has a lot to do with the way we treat each other.''

RESISTANCE from some third-world governments isn't the only obstacle faced by children's-rights activists who want to stop the exploitation of children as soldiers. The activists also blame the problem on first-world governments that have signed the Geneva Convention but continue to sell arms to countries that have not, and are known to use child soldiers. US arms sales to Iran - which has been widely criticized for sending thousands of children into battle, many as human minesweepers - is a case in point.

Advocates of children's rights say that as long as there is war, children are at risk of being used as cogs in mankind's killing machine. Activists say they look forward to the debate on, and ratification of, the Convention of the Rights of the Child - an international document now being drafted and expected to be presented to the UN in the next few years. But they also say that the world is going to have to do a lot more than put words on paper if the rights of children are to be protected.

``Humane men and women can never allow the objective of any war to justify the way that a war is being fought,'' says Boothby. ``What we're talking about is morality in war. And that begins with the protection of children from this kind of exploitation.

``We have to keep children beyond the pale of this kind of violence,'' he says. ``If you look around the world today, we're not doing a very good job of that.''

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