On November 8, I spoke to 130 middle schoolers from the Washington, DC area at the Fall Model UN Conference on child soldiers. Tens of thousands of child soldiers around the world—youth who have been robbed of a childhood—all face difficulties both while they are in the field and once they return home. Many have the resilience to begin again—grassroots organizations are providing much needed support. “Their approach is a holistic one—healing the body but also healing the soul."
Students from Alice Deal Middle School, Brightwood Education Campus, Visitation Academy, Al Fatih Academy, Burley Middle School, and Robert Frost Middle School participated in the session.
The image was taken in Goma in eastern Congo at Don Bosco Ngangi, a center that feeds 3,000 vulnerable youth on a daily basis.
The text of my talk follows below:
For many, childhood evokes security, happy memories and loving images of family. However, for others born in countries where war has become a way of life, “childhood” has a very different meaning.
Child Soldiers International, a major human rights organization, now counts tens of thousands of children involved in armed conflict. Most are between the ages of fourteen and eighteen; some are as young as nine. This morning I would like to focus on these children, some of whom I have met—to show what their life was like during and after the war—and to examine how best to heal the wounds of war.
Robbed of a childhood, child soldiers are forced to grow up quickly. They appear tough, or ruthless. But when they open their hearts they become scared and vulnerable.
Their experiences are diverse—as are their voices.
A boy from Congo says, “I heard that the rebels at least were eating so I joined them.”
At the age of 10, the twins Johnny and Luther Htoo lead a successful attack against the Burmese army. When asked what games he likes to play, Johnny answers, “I don’t know how to play.”
Another Burmese child named Htay explains why he joined the army at age 15: “I admired soldiers, their guns and crisp, neat uniforms. I just wanted to fight the way they did in the movies and so I joined the army.”
A 12-year old Rwandan boy says, “I was so afraid of dying. But my friends warned me if the rebel commanders detected any fear in me they would kill me. So I had to pretend to be brave.”
A boy from Colombia recalls, “They give you a gun and you have to kill the best friend you have. They do it to see if they can trust you. If you don’t kill him, your friend will be ordered to kill you. That’s why I got out. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”
Another boy, also from Colombia, says, “I’m not afraid to die, but I’m afraid to die so young. You can’t think about the future here, because the future is a coffin.”
More than 20 countries make use of child soldiers. Some are abducted into the army while others enlist. Those who join voluntarily are often attracted by a sense of security they lack in their own lives. They may be orphaned, homeless, or hungry.
They serve as messengers, spies, cooks, porters, servants—and also as combatants. The military trains them to obey orders. Many carry weapons and are sent to the front—others participate in guerrilla warfare. They might lead a raid, lie in ambush, or place landmines. Girls, as well as boys, serve as soldiers in both non-combat and combat positions. They are subject to sexual violence and are often forced to become wives of commanders.
For some the military unit replaces the family they have lost. Young soldiers bond with other children in their group, often seeing their leader as a father figure. They look to him for acceptance, go out of their way to please him, and turn to him for approval. In Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war, from 1991 to 2001, 80 percent of the fighters in the rebel Revolutionary United Front were between 7 and 14. They called their leader “Pappy.”
In Sudan, between 1983 and 2005, 10,000 children took part in one of Africa’s longest civil wars that pitted the north of the country (mostly Muslim) against the south (mostly Christian).
Kachoul is a former child soldier I met in Sudan a few years ago. He told me that, as an 11-year old child, he left his homeland to join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army—traveling by foot to Ethiopia. He sold his clothes and blankets so that he would have enough money for boatmen to ferry him across rivers. He saw his companions eaten by crocodiles. Later he was taken back to Sudan for more military training.
Kachoul went for days without food and water, became infected with parasites, and suffered from malaria. He survived landmines, explosives, shooting, and wild animals.
Later Kachoul attended school in a refugee camp. He did well and went on to university in Kenya to study agriculture—but only because, along the way, he had teachers who took a special interest in him.
Kachoul became reconnected with some of his family but not all. Twenty years would pass before he and his mother would be reunited—for much of that time she did not know her son was alive.
After the war Kachoul wanted to help other former child soldiers. He explained, “Children between 7 and 12 years old went through bitter experiences, which I call 'the second holocaust,' where fellow human beings treated others inhumanely… If nothing is done now to rehabilitate and give these children skills to lean on, in the future they will pose a big threat to society.”
Another former child soldier, also from South Sudan, Emmanuel Jal, is also working to help rehabilitate child soldiers. He has become a human rights activist and a professional musician.
At the age of seven, Emmanuel was taught to shoot a gun. He stayed with the army for four years. Emma McCune, a British aid worker who had married a rebel commander, befriended him. She helped him escape, smuggling him onto a cargo plane that took him to Nigeria. Emma McCune died in an automobile accident a few months later; afterwards Emma’s friends helped support Emmanuel and paid for his education.
“The music I grew up with,” Emmanuel says, was “bullets and bombs.” However, Emmanuel went on to become a hip-hop artist—with four albums to his name. In October 2005, Emmanuel, together with Abdel Gadir Salim, a Muslim musician from the north, released a CD called “Ceasefire,” with lyrics in four languages, Arabic, English, Swahili, and Nuer (a central African language). This collaboration between the two musicians, one from the north, the other from the south of Sudan, became a tribute to the peace agreement between both sides, signed on January 9, 2005.
Now a spokesperson for non-profit groups such as Save the Children and the Child Soldiers International, Emmanuel continues to write songs to help bring peace to Sudan as well as attention to the plight of child soldiers. He has appeared in cities around the world. When I heard him perform here in Washington Emmanuel attracted a large crowd and used the proceeds to support his cause. The audience was transfixed.
In Uganda, the rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, captured more than 28,000 children, many of them under thirteen. The boys were forced to serve as soldiers. The girls were assigned to be wives to commanders—as well as to fight. New recruits were made to circle the perimeter of the camp carrying stones on their shoulders. Those who spilled the stones or collapsed were killed.
I spent some time with Grace Akallo, a young woman who was forced to join the LRA at the age of 15. She was one of the 139 girls abducted at night from St. Mary’s, a boarding school in northern Uganda. Her teacher, a nun, pleaded with the LRA commander to free the girls. He released 109 of them—Grace was one of the 30 he kept.
Grace was forced to become a solider and the wife of an LRA commander. But—unlike others—after seven months, she escaped into the forest. She told me a Ugandan general found her and took her to his house where his wife looked after her.
For many months Grace wanted to be by herself. She talked very little. She had no energy. Later, when she did see her family, she could not speak of what had happened with the LRA. She returned to St. Mary’s school where the nuns and her classmates asked few questions.
Once Grace finished high school she attended Uganda Christian University—she also volunteered at the Rachele Rehabilitation Center. There she could help other children who had been abducted by the LRA.
She told them, “You have your whole life in front of you. You have a future. Yes, you have had memories and they will always be there, but you’re still young. Maybe some of you will become ministers and presidents.”
Grace shared her own story so that she could build a rapport with the youth. She told them she used to think she had no life and that nothing good would ever happen. But now things had changed. She could talk about the past—and she could help children who came to the shelter.
Like Grace many child soldiers have a difficult time returning to their community. They find they are no longer welcome at home. Their neighbors may see them as a threat to the stability of their village. Families may feel shame in taking back a child who had fought for the enemy or who had destroyed their village.
Emotional support, education, vocational training are crucial to help these youth recover.
When I traveled to Congo a month ago I saw just how important it was for former child soldiers and others affected by war to be allowed to start over—to once again become a part of a family, a part of a community.
Many children affected by war become angry or depressed. They need to learn coping skills—and they need to learn to enjoy life—once again.
In Goma, a city of one million people in eastern Congo, I visited the Parlement des Enfants—or Children’s Parliament, an organization that is run by youth to defend the rights of the child as established by the United Nations. Part of their work involves demobilization of child soldiers. They also facilitate their return into the community. They help children become aware of their rights, promote public health initiatives, and assist with education, cultural and recreational activities. The young director Junior Alimasi and the 15-year old president Michael Mandeko listen to youth plead their cases, refer them to the proper authorities, and follow up with the families.
The Don Bosco Center Ngangi, also in Goma, serves 3000 youth, some of them ex-child soldiers. There they study welding, cooking and pastry, sewing, hairdressing, farming and woodworking. The clothing and tables, chairs, school benches and other furniture are all for sale.
The center also provides a temporary home for young people who have no other place to go. Children whose parents were killed. Children whose parents were forced to flee their villages. Children whose parents are in no position to take on another mouth to feed.
The youth take comfort in being together—their classmates become family. They are grateful for each other—and for their education.
Young people do recover from trauma and, over time, gain confidence to earn a living.
At one rehabilitation center in the hills outside Goma former child soldiers are trained to use sewing machines—I saw youth sewing straight lines on paper for practice and others making shirts, skirts, dresses and pants. Once the youth are ready to leave they will take their sewing machines with them to set up their own businesses.
Dario Merlo is a successful Congolese conservationist who has started an after-school basketball program for vulnerable youth, including some former child soldiers. The focus isn’t only on skills and drills and the 3-man-weave but on discipline, hard work, team spirit, and a concern for the environment. Everyone also has to study English—soon to become mandatory in the school system.
Merlo’s players develop a great sense of camaraderie and, as Merlo told me, networking skills. “If you have integrity and skills and speak English you have the best chance to find a job… You need to learn not just to be a good player but to be a good guy.”
Chiku Leandre is a Congolese choreographer who has started a modern interpretive dance company in Goma. The company provides intensive workshops for former child soldiers. The dancers encourage them to smile or laugh—using movement and improvisation to increase their self-confidence. It works—the youth become more open, more positive.
For many youth in Congo, programs in the arts, basketball and other sports provide diversion and camaraderie, expand horizons and introduce new skills—for some these are the only outlets that allow them to connect to others and to made to feel whole once again.
The wounds from bullets and land-mine explosions must be healed—but also the after-effects of malnourishment, drug addiction, and disease, as well as the emotional and psychological scars of war. Children need to overcome their alienation, their anger, and their nightmares.
Grassroots organizations in Congo and in other countries are providing this much needed support. Their approach is a holistic one—healing the body but also healing the soul.