Helping children warriors regain their humanity
Officials and activists from all over the world meet to strategize
FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE — "Please, don't shoot," an enemy begged. But 11-year-old Tejan Bockarie followed orders.
"My commander gave me a gun, cocked it, and said: 'Kill him.' I just fired."
Today, at 18, Tejan leans against the balcony at a beach-side rehabilitation camp outside Freetown, Sierra Leone, flashes a cocky grin. He boasts of killing "many, many, many" people during seven drugged-dazed years of combat with the Revolutionary United Front.
Tejan had been a victim himself at first, kidnapped from his schoolyard. But, like an estimated 6,000 other children in Sierra Leone, he was turned into a ruthless soldier.
As a fragile peace process begins to take hold, the adults here who forced children to fight on both sides of their civil war are confronting the same question that international experts have been asking for years: How can they heal kids who were trained to kill?
"It is very difficult," says Hendrik Haggstrom, an internationally renowned expert who has worked with demobilized child soldiers in dozens of projects run by Save the Children Sweden. "But rehabilitation works. I've seen it happen."
Mr. Haggstrom estimates that Save the Children, UNICEF, and a host of other aid groups are running some 55 programs for former young combatants around the world today. But the effort is not nearly enough to reach all the children of war.
Globally, an estimated 300,000 children are involved in 36 armed conflicts from the African jungles of Angola and Sudan to the Latin American mountains of Colombia and Peru; from Afghanistan to Indonesia, the Middle East and the Balkans. Experts say the numbers are climbing.
In Sierra Leone this week, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the US would give $4 million in aid to help educate child soldiers who disarm.
The spread of underage warriors is also spurring efforts by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which wraps up a three-day conference in Berlin today. Some 250 representatives from 34 countries and 30 nongovernmental groups attended. The coalition (made up of human rights activists, religious groups, and aid organizations) is campaigning to raise the minimum age for military recruitment to 18.
Although most countries do not permit teens under 18 to vote or drink alcohol, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child allows children as young as 15 to enter combat. Five years of UN-sponsored negotiations have failed to produce a comprehensive ban on the use of child soldiers largely because of opposition from the US government. The United States, with some 7,000 17-year-olds in its military forces, has been a leading opponent to the call for a so-called "straight-18s protocol." Canada and Britain also recruit 17-year-olds.
But the most serious exploitation of children is occurring in third-world conflicts, where guerrilla leaders, civil defense units, and even government military commanders use children as young as 7 to fight brutal bush wars. Some developing countries argue that their definition of adulthood is simply different from the age rules applied in the Western world: If a boy can pass a native manhood ritual, get married, or begin farming well before his 18th birthday, why can't he also fight?
But, in worst-case scenarios, unwilling children are simply kidnapped from homes or schools and forced into war. One of the world's greatest offenders is the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. It has abducted some 10,000 boys and girls and forced them into its continuing, long-running battle to oust the government.
Pressures to join
Elsewhere, children have willingly joined militias - swept up by liberation rhetoric or enticed by adventure. In the Middle East, religious beliefs and even parental pressures pushed Palestinian children to join the Intifadah - the uprising against Israeli occupation that began in 1987. Kids who die are hailed as martyrs. In countries like Sudan, where conflict has dragged on for years, children are often compelled to take up arms because they have lost their parents or don't have enough food to eat.
The commanders know children can make good soldiers. "Chiefs of warfare reach out to children precisely because they are innocent, malleable, impressionable," explains Olara Otunnu, the UN Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict. "You can mold them into a ruthless, unquestioning instrument."
The youngest ones often start as messengers, spies, guards, or porters who carry food and ammunition. Girls are usually forced into domestic and sexual servitude to the commanders. Sometimes children are sent out as "advance" troops to fire on enemies or clear landmines. In Colombia, guerrilla leaders call child combatants "little bees" - able to sting before their targets realize they are under attack.
Military commanders around the world have developed barbaric "tests" to ensure a child's commitment. In Mozambique, the rebels who waged 16 years of guerrilla war kidnapped 13-year-old Emelia. She says they forced her to prepare and eat a dead body for dinner. "I still have nightmares," says Emelia, fidgeting as she recalls in a dull voice the trauma that occurred more than seven years ago.
The rebel leaders know that if a child submits to one such horrid command, they will obey following orders. Commonly, the commanders also force kids to commit atrocities in their communities - an almost foolproof method of ensuring that children will never want to return home.
Treating child soldiers
Boia Efraime Junior, a psychologist who spent years treating Mozambique's former child soldiers, says one of his patients was only 8 when rebels raided his village and slaughtered supporters of the Frelimo government. The boy was told his parents would die, but he could be spared - if he slit his father's throat.
The father begged his son to do it. The boy obeyed. "When he did that," says Mr. Junior, "in the place where he once played, he broke all bonds with humanity."
In addition, drugs are used to render children into unfeeling instruments.
Young Tejan says his rebel leaders cut his arm with a razor and inserted cocaine directly into his blood stream - a widespread practice that has been confirmed by Human Rights Watch observers in Sierra Leone. "It gave me the will to fight," Tejan says. "We have a hot temper. We appear in a town, we raid. When someone moves, I just shoot."
Mr. Otunnu, the UN representative, says the boy's callous words are no surprise. "Some of the worst atrocities have been committed by children."
Child soldiers routinely emerge from the bush maimed - with lost limbs or lost eyesight. Moreover, they have lost their childhoods. Too many have witnessed acts of human depravity that few adults can fathom. "They suffer classic symptoms of post traumatic stress," says Save the Children's Haggstrom. "Apathy, nightmares, concentration problems, eating disturbances."
The children often distrust adults and authority. The girls usually fear men and are shunned by societies that consider them "secondhand goods."
The boys often deal with frustration by lashing out in violence. Children who committed atrocities in their own communities are feared and loathed as "rebels.''
Help on the way
In Sierra Leone, teams of social workers are being deployed to talk to parents and community leaders as part of a massive "sensitization" campaign.
"But some families will never, never accept these boys back," says Susan Kaikai, one of the workers now attempting to reunite child combatants with their parents. "Neighbors have seen the children burning down houses, cutting off people's hands. Those are not easy things to forgive."
Moses Sesay, 15, was returned to his Freetown home after two years with rebel troops. His parents were grateful he was alive, but his neighbors remembered him setting homes on fire.
"They tease him, they shout "rebel, rebel, rebel," says his despairing mother, Isatu, sitting on her porch as Moses fetches water, and her husband hangs his head. "It is too much for him," Mrs. Sesay continues. "The other day he came in the kitchen and got a knife. He was going to stab a boy."
The boy's father, Moses Sesay Sr., says he no longer sees the exuberant, intelligent son who disappeared from home. "He is completely changed. He's violent, he doesn't accept discipline, he won't go to school. What are we to do?"
Reasons for hope
Experts say child soldiers often grow up to become abusive parents and criminals. They find it difficult to adjust to life in a civil society. But Haggstrom and others say that, with help, war-damaged children can become responsible adults. And they point to a successful program Mr. Junior set up in Mozambique, called Rebuilding Hope. For the past five years, a team of psychologists, African traditional healers, and art therapists have worked to mend the emotional wounds of about 150 former soldiers who live among grass huts and banana trees on remote Josina Machel Island.
Western-trained counselors talked through many of the problems with the youths. In art therapy, clay was used to construct images from the past: tanks, guns, soldiers. Dance therapist Dinis Nambureta persuaded reluctant youths to move to the music he makes on drums while recalling the memories - and force them out.
"I see so much emotion," Mr. Nambureta explained earlier this year. "They concentrate all this energy into one moment, and it helps get all the bad things out. Afterward, it sometimes seems like this is the happiest moment in their lives."
Often the most cathartic experience comes from meetings with African traditional healers - a method that reaches the children through their own customs and beliefs. These healers are believed to act as mediums for spirits of the dead, so that the youths can seek absolution from their victims.
Manuel Sambula, 18, says he was relieved of his guilt when a traditional healer fed him a concoction that made him vomit: "the evil came out of me," he says
"This is reality for these people," Junior says. "It works.... I could spend three, four years working with one client. An African traditional healer can sometimes do it in one session."
Haggstrom says programs must offer an alternative to fighting: schooling, job training, work programs. Without it, experience has shown that disarmed child soldiers may willingly rejoin their comrades in the bush. Aid workers, Haggstrom stresses, should work hand in hand with the local community to reintegrate the children into home environments.
Ten years ago, many child soldiers were institutionalized for up to three years after a conflict ended while adults struggled to give them therapy. "We have learned a lot since then," Haggstrom says. He has seen many teenagers turn their lives around.
Getting a smile back
He remembers treating a young boy who had taken up arms in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and emerged from battle with a bullet in his back. "He was very depressed. He said he hadn't understood that he could be hurt. He had eating problems, didn't want to talk."
But after months in rehabilitation, Haggstrom watched the boy became more and more social. "He was eventually able to go back to school. And he got his smile back."
Rebuilding Hope has celebrated similar successes. Mr. Junior is being recognized in the US this month with a human rights award for his achievements in treating child soldiers.
But the German aid group that funded Junior's work has discontinued its financing and this month, the program closed down. Junior says the donors' priorities have simply changed since the crisis in Kosovo.
At the group home outside Freetown, Tejan is still prone to talking tough. But, in a quiet moment, he admits that he just wants to go back home to his parents and, once again, feel loved. Usually, he says, his dreams are filled with enemies and killing and war. "But yesterday I dreamed about my mother. She saw me, and she cried, Then she came to hug me."
WAYS TO HELP Amnesty International 322 8th Avenue New York, NY 10001 USA
Human Rights Watch 350 5th Avenue - 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA
Swedish Save the Children Tortjatan #4 10788, Stockholm SWEDEN www.rb.se
Handicap International 4400 Upton Ave South Apt. 401 Minneapolis, MN 55410 USA (612) 925-9418
Operation Lifeline Sudan/UNICEF P. O. Box 44145 Nairobi KENYA
AMOSAPU Av FPLM 2210 Maputo MOZAMBIQUE
Children Assistance Program ACS, Old Rd, PO Box 9080 1000 Monrovia 10 LIBERIA
Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers 11-13 Chemin des Anmones 1219 Chatelaine, Geneva SWITZERLAND www.child-soldiers.org
US Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers: www.uschildsoldiers.org/uscs/home.html
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society