They don’t go to school. They carry weapons instead of pencils, they are far away from their loved ones, and the uncertainty, fear and hate caused live in their minds.
These are child soldiers and there are many of them facing such repugnant situations in scenes of conflict in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and other regions of the planet.
In relation to this topic, Prensa Latina, spoke to Najwa Mekki, spokesperson of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
“We don’t have exact data, but we know that there are thousands and thousands of children affected by this practice in various parts of the world”, she stated.
According to the spokesperson, in conflict situations minors are not only recruited for combat, but they are also used as messengers, spies, domestic workers and even for sexual purposes, especially in the case of girls, who are even subjected to sexual slavery.
Nevertheless, Mekki celebrated several advances during the last decade, after the commitments made by the Paris declaration were adopted, to face up to this scourge, such as the liberation of some 65,000 children recruited by armed forces or non-state groups, around half of those in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
These commitments protect children and teenagers from the scourge of war, with more than 100 countries part of the initiative. However, there is still a lot to do, which “involves greater political will from the international community”, she advised.
According to Unicef’s statistics, since 2013, at least 17,000 children joined the ranks of groups in conflict in South Sudan and 10,000 in the Central African Republic, meanwhile in Yemen, 1,500 have suffered from this phenomenon since the escalation of hostilities in March 2015.
Also in Nigeria and its neighbours in the Lake Chad basin, child soldiers are present, with some two thousand recruited by the Islamist sect Boko Haram, merely during 2016.
Efforts by Unicef
Mekki explained that the actions of the Fund are wide-ranging, among them negotiations with actors in the conflicts to achieve freedom, programmes of psychological assistance and social reintegration and concrete efforts to prevent, aimed particularly at creating conditions to keep them in school and together with their loved ones.
Among the initiatives is a births registry, so there can be no doubt about age, and the preservation of a family environment conducive to development, on the basis of poverty and lack of opportunities making children more vulnerable.
“We are working on many fronts, but the priority is education, classrooms are the safest place for children, there we try to keep them or bring them back to make up for lost time”, she said in her interview with Prensa Latina.
The Unicef spokesperson recognised that the situation has become more complicated in recent years, with the rise of groups that the United Nations classes as terrorists, such as Islamic State and Boko Haram.
“Unicef is always prepared to negotiate with those who have minors under their control, something which is not always possible. The nature of the conflicts has changed, with more and more attacks directed at children by armed groups interested in destroying communities” she stated.
They have, she says, “the support of activists who were child soldiers, with examples such as Ishmael Beah, who, after living through this experience in Sierra Leone, wrote a book and takes part in this cause alongside us”.
“It is very important because no-one can communicate better with a traumatised child than someone who lived through the same experience and is in a position to tell them: I was in your place and I am proof that there are opportunities and you can overcome this,” she added.
Damage and reintegration
According to Mekki, after the children are freed or escape from armed forces and insurgent groups, the long and complex work of rehabilitation begins.
“They usually went through very strong experiences, never forget that they are children, and on occasion they were obliged to commit brutal acts even against their own communities”, she said.
In this way, she explained that minors do not go directly from armed groups to their homes, because the traumas must be overcome through a process.
“Confidence must be rebuilt, in themselves and in their communities, which happens through psychosocial support, psychological assistance, and other actions aimed at avoiding their return to these scenes of violence”, she said.
Facing a lack of opportunities, poverty and inequality, many children find a way out of their situations through these armed groups, thus it is important to guarantee a nurturing environment to distance them from these groups.
“Sometimes, and despite everything, they see the armed group as a second family, who feeds them and gives them a place to sleep, by which it offers them the hope of a different word,” she said.
It also forms part of their reintegration to go back to school or, where necessary, to teach them a trade.
Photos: Pixabay – (Translated by Donna Davison – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)