It is now over 20 years since the UN began to pull together a world convention against the use of child soldiers. There were a series of conferences from 1999 (in Mozambique and then Amman) that first attempted to counter an abuse that was rampant in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Angola, Uganda, South Sudan.
A child was defined as anyone under the age of 18. But birth dates are often poorly recorded in some parts of Africa, and even national armies tended to recruit teenagers. The age-ban was even initially a problem for the USA and the UK who recruit into the military at age 17.
UN Protocol against conscription of child soldiers
Now the UN has formulated the Optional Protocol against the conscription of child soldiers which has been ratified by 172 countries including the USA and UK. Countries that have not yet signed include North Korea, Equatorial Guinea and the United Arab Emirates. Countries that have signed but not yet ratified include Iran, Lebanon and Liberia.
Liberia under Charles Taylor became notorious for the use of child soldiers, especially in the civil war in Sierra Leone, where it was estimated that about half the forces on both sides were children between the ages of 8 to 14.
There were shocking scenes of limbs being hacked off during that civil war. When Charles Taylor was eventually deposed in 2003, he was allowed to stay with his family in exile in Nigeria, but three years later the new President of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf, asked for his extradition and he was eventually tried at the Hague International Court.
He was sentenced to 50 years in prison for crimes that included rape, slavery, mutiliation, and use of children under the age of 15 in armed forces or groups. The Hague agreed to host his trial on condition that another nation would carry out the sentence. The UK government volunteered, which is why Charles Taylor is serving out his sentence in Durham prison.
Charly en guerre
British readers are aware of the horrors of the Sierra Leone war as eventually it was British paratroopers who assisted in pacifying that country but also in the Francophone regions of West Africa there have been many occurrences where violent conflicts involved children. There is a novel for children, Charly en guerre, written by Florent Couao-Zotti of Benin, which won first prize in children’s literature in 1996.
It is a moving account of a ten year old boy forced to follow John, a boy some six years older through the ghastly adventures of violence in a tropical jungle. My grandson was reading it, so it must have been recommended to the class in his French Lycée, which shows that the French are perhaps more aware of the problem of child soldiers than the average English teenager.
Child soldier with the Mai-Mai
When in South Africa, I heard an account from a refugee of his experience as a child soldier. He lived in the region of East Congo where the Mai-Mai were active. These were local tribal groups hostile to the immigrants from Rwanda. Although he was abducted from school and forced to join the band, I got the impression that he was not unwilling: it was the patriotic thing to do. He also enjoyed the power of being given a gun to use and he was given ointment supposed to protect him from battle wounds. So he spent a couple of years with the Mai-Mai before they were rounded up by the Congolese army.
They were not punished because President Mobutu was keen to strengthen the army and pragmatically decided to enlist any young fighters who agreed to swap sides. So the teenager then spent some months with the Congolese army. Peace was breaking out, and the government also got some foreign aid which was to be used in scholarships.
Worse period of his life
This refugee, being clever and fluent in French, got awarded a scholarship to study film technology in Paris. He spent some two years there but, before he could qualify, the political situation in Congo deteriorated, and suddenly the government decided that all the Congolese students must fly home. They packed them in an aeroplane, and flew them straight to the battle-zone, where they were given guns on disembarking. Then began what the young man describes as the worst period of his life.
This army was hopelessly disorganised, with no supplies. They were wandering about the jungle looking for food rather than the enemy! Eventually this wandering took them near to the young man’s home village, so at this point he decided to desert. His father tried to get him back into education, and qualify for University at Bukavu, but he was already too keen on a career in film. So he fled across the lake to Tanzania, and eventually to South Africa.
Child soldiers today?
Both these stories are from two decades ago. But what about child soldiers today?
Sadly it has been estimated that about half of the Houthi fighters in Yemen are children. One of the causes of this recruitment is because guns are now so light and cheap to buy that it is easy to arm children, as my Congolese refugee friend experienced. British-made arms are still being sold to Saudi Arabia which is one of the belligerents in Yemen.
So on Red Hand Day, 13th February, inaugurated in 2002 to increase awareness of child soldiers, let us be aware of the refugees who suffered this trauma when they were younger. The UN reports that over 8,500 children were used as soldiers during 2020.
See https://www.accord.org.za/ajcr-issues/child-soldiers-in-africa/#:~:text=It%20resulted%20in%20the%20Amman,below%2018%20in%20military%20combat for further reports about child soldiers in Africa.