There is no doubt that children pay the highest price for wars, wherever they might be. Today millions of them have to live in war conditions, live with heavy bombardment on a daily basis, start their mornings amid a background of explosions and screams, and suffer from trauma caused by armed conflicts, when what they should be doing is playing with their peers in schoolyards. Most of the time, the children end up becoming vulnerable refugees all alone in foreign lands. Frequently they are abused, or face imminent death due to a variety of reasons including malnutrition, lack of sanitation or basic standards of living. Maybe worse, hundred of thousands are forced to be soldiers.
One thing the guerilla wars across the globe have in common today is their frequent use of child soldiers. Groups fighting in these conflicts frequently exploit children, often using them as human shields. There are now 30 countries reported to be home to 300,000 child soldiers, including Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, Congo, Mali, Myanmar and the Philippines.
As the number of conflicts rise around the world, so does the number of children forced to fight in them. Vulnerable and impressionable due to their young age, child soldiers are frequently abused both by armed rebel groups, and occasionally at the hands of governments. Children who are orphaned due to wars, who witness the murder of their families, or who are suffering from poverty, are at particular risk.
The retired Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire summarized the ordeal of child soldiers in a book titled “They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children.” He wrote, “As you read this, there is a child as young as eight, nine, 10 and up to 17 years of age who is at the brink of losing his or her childhood to war, who is starting on the path of believing that violence is an acceptable part of life.”
For instance, Simon, a 12-year-old former child-soldier from South Sudan, now wants to be a pilot. But things weren’t always easy: “Being back home is better than being in the military because in the military when you make a mistake they take you to jail and they beat you for weeks. I was cooking and washing clothes. So when I was released as a soldier and [UNICEF] took me to the care center, I became a good person. There, no one disturbed me. No one beat me. And I received food. I don’t think small children should be soldiers.”
Child soldiers were first used in the Vietnam war, and then as suicide bombers in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Today, they are used widely as suicide bombers across the Middle East. Myanmar, on the other hand, has the largest number of child soldiers, where underage soldiers make up some 20 percent of the army, according to Human Rights Watch.
Child soldiers are also frequently used in conflict zones such as Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Uganda. During the civil war in Libya, child soldiers were responsible for the security of buildings. In the war in Afghanistan, many children have also been forced to fight. The number of them were so high, at one point, that 45 percent of combatants were under 18.
Child-soldiers in Syria, which is in its sixth year of civil war, are now considered almost normal. Children rights advocate Rallf Willinger explains: “All warring sides use child soldiers. Some do it in plain sight, while others use them as doctor assistants or as spies, putting them at great risk.”
The situation is not very different in Iraq that has been a battlefield since 2003. Willinger maintains that as the war drags on, it gets more difficult for children to stay out of these clashes.
A 17-year-old South Sudanese boy told Human Rights Watch that he didn’t know how to use a gun until he was abducted and made a soldier. He was trained and sent to the battlefield with others: “[Seven] of us were killed right on the first day.” There are currently 16,000 child soldiers in South Sudan, and one-third of the soldiers in Yemen are known to be children.
Another country where children are abducted and forced to be child-soldiers is the Central African Republic. Usually lured with promises of money, or smart phones, children are never allowed to go back to their homes after seeing the locations of military bases. And those who leave their units are executed.
There is no doubt that this horrible situation stems from massive waves of troubles and pain engulfing the world. It is unacceptable that children be subjected to this tyranny. People of conscience should come together, mold public opinion as organizations and NGOs step up their efforts to help. The U.N. must take a stronger stance and launch campaigns to ensure that all countries contribute measures to end the ordeal of child soldiers.
The solution should not be expected from Western countries only.
The leaders of Islamic countries should also come together and take specific steps for a resolution to this serious issue.
And what is more, the awareness of the public, including families and children in those countries facing the problem of child soldiers, should be raised through educational seminars as a precautionary measure.
It is crucial that individuals do everything to save children who get killed or are forced to kill others, who are injured, disabled and who are forced to hurt others at gunpoint. They merit a brighter future.
By Harun Yahya
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