Former Child Soldiers Work to Save Those Left Behind
UNITED NATIONS - "An AK-47 is not made for a kid. It is not made for a human being, let alone a kid," said Kon Kelei, a former child soldier from Sudan. Kelei was taken to a camp when he was four or five years old -- he is not precisely sure -- and trained to fight in battle."What we need is to focus and advocate for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation made me who I am today and what I am saying today," he stressed.
Kelei and other former child soldiers, along with youth leaders who have firsthand experience in conflict zones, this month launched a new Global Network of Young People Formerly Affected by War (NYPAW) at U.N. headquarters in New York.
The group is led by UNICEF advocate Ismael Beah, who wrote the international bestseller "A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Child Soldier", where he describes his experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. Beah served in the Sierra Leonean army for almost two years -- a reminder that it is not only rebel groups which recruit children.
The objective of the network is to demand accountability and to promote rehabilitation and empowerment of young people who are affected by armed conflict.
"The reason why we believe that change is possible is not because we are idealists but because we believe we have made it, so other people can make it as well," Kelei said.
With an estimated 250,000 children around the world recruited to serve in armed conflicts as soldiers, messengers, spies, porters, cooks, for sexual services or even as suicide bombers, this is a pressing social issue that needs to be better addressed by the international community, advocates say.
"From the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Gaza Strip and from Afghanistan to Somalia, too many children are suffering from the consequences of conflict," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.
"War violates every right of the child. Everybody has a role to play to stop these violations. We cannot let war continue to destroy childhood," she said, adding that, "The power of resilience of these children should give us the strength to continue to mobilise the international community to do more to stop this terrible phenomenon."
UNICEF often conducts delicate negotiations with warlords to try to gain the release of child soldiers without putting them at risk. That is why there is a great need for a knowledge-based advocacy system like NYPAW, with sub-networks on the ground in various countries that can provide information on the needs and particularities of each individual case.
Part of the network's mandate is to raise awareness and empower local communities, but also to demand accountability and contribute to the reconciliation process in countries experiencing conflict.
The purpose is to send a clear message to armed groups and governments to stop recruiting children, as well as providing facilities for rehabilitation and plans for reintegration into civilian life.
"When we get out of the war, our heads are filled with arms," Kelei said. "When we are disarmed, there is no room to function like a kid."
"When you have effective rehabilitation that is more holistic, then you have a place that you can make so that you continue with your life," he said.
Saad Houry, deputy executive director of UNICEF, also stressed the importance of education and schools as promoters of peace. "If we could maintain education during conflict, there is no doubt that we would prevent many children from becoming soldiers," he said.
The techniques recruiters use vary, but they mostly rely on fear and brainwashing. "We know what you think before you say it," the rebel leaders used to tell Grace Akallo and other children forced to fight in Uganda's insurgency.
"I was convinced that he could read my thoughts," said Akallo, who was captured and joined the forces of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda when she was 14. That left very little room for any escape plans. "Killed or be killed" was the motto they lived by, she said.
Akallo also stressed the terrible position of girl soldiers. "Girls are doing a double war," she said. They are trained like boys as soldiers but they are also used as "wives" for adult fighters, she said. In many cases, they are sent to fight while pregnant, giving birth in the middle of a battle or fighting with a baby on their back.
On the occasion of Universal Children's Day on Nov. 20, the U.N. also launched a photo exhibit titled "Children of War: Broken Childhood", based on a book called "Child Soldiers" that features the work of prominent war photographers.
It was organised by the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict with the support of the Italian government and in collaboration with the United Nations Department of Public Information.