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Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go To War
Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go To War
Jimmie Briggs
Basic Books, 2005
216 pp., 24.95

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Child Soldiers in Africa (The Ethnography of Political Violence)
Child Soldiers in Africa (The Ethnography of Political Violence)
Alcinda Honwana
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007
216 pp., 32.00

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Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection
Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection
Michael Wessells
Harvard University Press, 2006
302 pp., 56.23

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Tim Stafford

A New Kind of War

Child soldiers.

"After four months of training they put me to a test. They put a person before me and ordered me to shoot him. I shot him. After the test they considered me good and they gave me a gun."
—from Child Soldiers in Africa, by Alcinda Honwana

"We were told that when we came out, the government would kill us. They created a lot of fear. Those who tried to escape were battered to death. I saw at least fourteen receive this fate. When I was abducted, I was a very young girl, so they gave me to a man who made me his wife. After that, I was a woman."
—from Innocents Lost, by Jimmie Briggs

The black-and-white cover photo of Jimmie Briggs' book, Innocents Lost, shows a boy starting up on his bicycle. We are in a rural area somewhere: a dirt road fringed with high grass and brush. The boy has the bike pointing away from us; we cannot see his face. His boots are caked with mud, as is his bike, which shows signs of makeshift repairs.

The bike is too big for the boy. We can see from the angle of his body that getting up on the seat without toppling over will take concentration. And yet, he will do it. He shows by the taut determination in his limbs that he is determined to do it, even if it takes several tries.

This portrait of childhood captures at once its solitude and its ambitions: to ride a bike, to go freely somewhere of my choosing, and to master mechanical tools. Only one detail prevents us from falling into a reverie of youthful past: the boy has an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.

Children have always gone to war. Alcinda Honwana mentions the Children's Crusades of 1212, the armies of Napoleon, and the British navy under Lord Nelson, which had "many naval cadets and midshipmen of fifteen, as well as younger cabin boys and 'powder monkeys.'" Nevertheless, our age uses unprecedented numbers of very young children in wars of unbelievable savagery. Militias are often more like ghetto gangs than traditional armies with their rigid discipline and ethical limits. Honwana quotes Mary KaldorĀ  to the effect that new armies "use techniques of terror, ethnic cleansing or genocide as deliberate war strategies. In the new wars, battles are rare and violence is directed against civilians. Violations of humanitarian and human rights law are not a side effect of war but the central methodology of new wars." According to Michael Wessells, in the first half of the 20th century over 90 percent of war-related deaths were soldiers. Now, 75 percent of casualties are civilians, with women and children the majority.

Such total wars are common in Africa, with Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, Somalia, and Sudan fresh in memory. But there are also examples in Sri Lanka, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia. In all these cases, children are deliberately and systematically recruited as soldiers. Sometimes they are abducted, as with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. In other cases, families or communities are pressured to contribute children to the cause; and in some cases children volunteer. Training is usually rudimentary. Living conditions are often brutal, with hunger and fear a consistent theme, as the children quoted in Honwana's book make clear:

"Our commanders were really mean and nasty. We were very scared of them. One day, while we were still doing our military training, we got permission to go bathe in the river, but we stayed there for quite a while because we started playing, swimming and enjoying ourselves. Time just flew. Our instructor came to look for us. He was so furious that he shot my friend, who died on the spot. I feel so sad when I remember all these things."

A study in Angola found boy soldiers' median age at recruitment was 13 to 14 years, and they spent an average of 3.8 years with an armed group. Seventy-seven percent had shot someone, 67 percent had lost family members or close friends to the war, 76 percent had seen people being killed, 29 percent had been wounded. Studies of other African wars found similar rates.

New wars are fought with light weapons—M16s or AK-47s, grenade tubes or shoulder-fired rocket launchers, suicide-bomber vests—that can be managed by a child. Many believe that children are ideal recruits. They can be easily dominated by older men, and their minds molded to foolish courage and unprincipled savagery. Many new armies use initiations that separate children from their old community, convincing them they can never go back. New soldiers may be forced to kill someone, even a parent or a sibling. Girls may be raped. In Angola, soldiers were forced to sing and dance all night for days on end. Deprived of sleep and rest, they could be easily manipulated.

Only the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka use females for the bulk of fighters. In most other wars, girls are combatants on a more occasional basis. Still, they are an integral part of the fighting force except in Islamic settings. They are used as porters, domestics, cooks and sexual slaves: "The nights were dreadful because we were there to be used by the soldiers. A soldier per night … . The lucky ones were those who were chosen by an officer who had a hut for them to live in and who protected them as his wives."

Most child soldiers come from rural and traditional societies, which may regard a 16-year-old as an adult ready to assume family responsibilities. Partly for that reason, attempts to eliminate child warfare through international laws that restrict ages of recruitment have had no noticeable impact. The United Nation's pathbreaking Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)—ratified by almost every nation in the world, except the United States—has failed to protect children from war. Honwana argues that "the definition of childhood used in these treaties is idealistic and inappropriate to the social and economic conditions of these societies, even in peacetime." Further, the new wars are inherently lawless; the "coercive recruitment of underage male soldiers and the abduction and captivity of girls are defining features" of the way these militias make war. Honwana contends for a bottom-up approach: these laws "need to be well understood within the context of local worldviews and meaning systems so they are recognized, accepted, and enforced on the ground, where protection of children from armed conflict begins and ends."

Though these books are quite different, they all tell the same tale. Michael Wessells brings extensive experience with the Christian Children's Fund to provide a painstaking, scholarly overview of the global situation. Honwana, also academic in her orientation, focuses more narrowly on Mozambique and Angola, where she has spent considerable time. Jimmie Briggs writes a much more personal and popular account of his journalistic visits to five countries where he investigated the use of child soldiers.

All three have activists' hearts, but none of them offers a trumpet call to action. That is because none of them knows what to do about this scourge. Total wars that gorge on children grow in conditions of economic and social breakdown. The wars add to the breakdown, contributing to helplessness and desperation. Efforts by the UN, by foreign aid, by the many NGOs that serve in these places, make no great difference. Does anybody know how to fix the Congo, where millions die almost unnoticed in the ongoing scrum of undisciplined militias? Apparently not.

What is left is picking up the broken pieces. After the terrible things these children have done and had done to them, how can they become part of their community again? What will make them whole? On this subject, some interesting points are made.

Wessells says that the children are surprisingly resilient: "The vast majority of former child soldiers I have talked with over the past decade do not show signs of chronic dysfunction but are actively adapting to their new lives and situations." And, "In most war zones, where people typically have a collectivist orientation, resilience is best regarded as a fundamentally relational and social process rather than an individual characteristic or process."

A typical Western approach is to build special camps for former child soldiers, places where counselors can help them talk about their emotional wounds and can prepare them to live in society. Both Wessells and Honwana warn that this is a doubtful strategy—that the children's families are usually far better equipped to help with healing than are counselors. In many rural societies the culture urges people to forget about the past, to make a deliberate effort not to think about it. "The well-meaning attempts of psychotherapists to help local people deal with war trauma," warns Honwana, "may, in fact, cause more harm than help. Healing is achieved through nonverbal, symbolic procedures." She adds: "In southern Mozambique and in Angola, community-based support, the family, and especially traditional approaches to healing play a crucial and constructive role."

Former child soldiers often say that "their greatest need is to see a traditional healer who can clean them of the spiritual impurities acquired during the war," according to Wessells. Their family and community generally agree, for they see spiritual pollution caused by war as a threat to them all, to which they all must respond.

Consequently, when a former child soldier comes home he or she is often immediately involved in a healing ritual, frequently with the aid of a traditional healer or a local prophet or pastor. Each community has its own traditions, but the rituals are as symbolically rich as those of Leviticus. Honwana provides an example:

"We took him to the bush about two kilometers away from our house. There we built a small hut covered with dry grass in which we put him, still dressed in the dirty clothes he came back with from the RENAMO [guerrilla] camp. Inside the hut he was undressed. Then we set fire to the hut and Paulo was helped out by an adult relative. The hut, the clothes, and everything else that he had brought from the camp were burned in the fire. Paulo then had to inhale the smoke of some herbal remedies and was bathed with water treated with medicine to cleanse his body internally and externally. Finally, we made him drink some medicine and gave him ku thlavela [vaccination] to give him strength and protect him."

Or, in another instance:

"[My family] acted according to the tradition … . My aunt took a live chicken and she rubbed it all over my body, as if she was dusting it, and then she rubbed palm oil on my hands and some ashes on my forehead. After that she threw fuba maize meal all over my body."

One healing ritual was performed by a Zionist bishop in Mozambique:

The bishop made the prayers and the congregation, forming a circle around him and Dacosta [the returned child soldier, the bishop's son], prayed and sang along. Then a fire was lit in the middle of the circle next to the bishop and his son. The bishop killed one of the pigeons [brought by the family] and sprinkled the blood on his son's body. (Dacosta had no shirt on.) The dead pigeon mixed with the oil and salt was let to burn to ashes in the fire. Meanwhile, the bishop took the other live pigeon and placed it on his son's head and, while praying, he let the bird fly free. This symbolized Dacosta's freedom from the bad things he might have done in the war. The bird's blood was also used to cleanse him. Part of the ashes of the burnt pigeon was sprinkled on the young man's body, and the rest was taken home to be mixed in his bathing water for a few days. Then, Dacosta put on a shirt and was greeted by the whole congregation, which formally welcomed him back.

Wessells describes a ritual of song and dance intended to purify abducted girls who had been raped. He then comments, "Before the rituals had been conducted, it would have been futile to provide access to job training or business activities."

As all three authors would agree, rituals are not enough, nor even are families. Some children are so terribly wounded that they cannot reintegrate into society; some families need help to accommodate a troubled and angry child who has grown up in an armed camp. Above all, not just the child must be healed—so must the society that broke down into war.

Just as poverty and helplessness are the breeding grounds for child soldiers, so they make it very difficult for former child soldiers to find dignity and purpose when they return to civilian life. Former child soldiers are acutely aware of their disadvantages, having missed the chance to get an education. They return with no skills and no property to a community that often treats them with hostility because of the terrible deeds they or their army have done. Drugs, alcohol or crime are a constant threat, as is reenlistment in some guerrilla army.

Some contend that no real reconciliation can be achieved until justice is done. Perhaps so, but child soldiers pose particularly difficult riddles. Are they victims, or victimizers? In many cases they are both. Jimmie Briggs relates the story of 16-year-old Francois, who during the Rwandan genocide was forced to kill his own nephews with a hoe in order to "prove" that he was reliably Hutu. (The four nephews had a Tutsi father.) After spending three years in prison for his crime of genocide, "Francois went home a scarred, empty man … . He received no counseling support … . Nor was there any type of coordination with his home community." Though he has since married and has a child, he has never told his wife why he went to prison. Was justice done? Was reconciliation achieved? What should have been done?

These are sobering books, full of fascinating information but ultimately lacking hope. Though Christianity is apparently robust in many of these societies, none of the authors mentions the church as a significant reconciler. Nor, for that matter, do they portray the secular efforts of NGOs and governments as particularly effective. They are not singling out anybody for criticism, merely witnessing to an ongoing reality. New wars are too widespread to be simply brushed aside; they are a persistent wound in the side of our world, resistant to what medicines we know. Everyone in these societies suffers from these open sores—and children suffer in every way, even being turned into monsters.

Tim Stafford is the author most recently of Shaking the System, just published by InterVarsity Press.

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