Children in Arms

In the Firing Line: War and Children’s Rights

by Amnesty International UK
Amnesty International UK, 118 pp., $12.95 (paper)

In the 1980s the standard image to emerge from the world’s disaster zones was a skeletal child with despairing eyes, clutching the hand of an aid worker. This was subsequently displaced by another stereotype, a bearded guerrilla fighter brandishing an AK-47, its forward-curving magazine silhouetted above his head. Today these two images have morphed into the figure of the child soldier, a gun-toting subteen with wraparound shades and a threatening demeanor, a child who is clearly not on his way to school.

The kid-with-a-Kalashnikov is already a cliché, and picture editors are now likely to demand more arresting images from the battlefield. (A seven-year-old with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, say. Preferably a girl.) But the child-at-arms is still the defining image of the troubled lands of the South, of the realm of war and hunger. He or she has come to represent a whole array of things that have gone wrong with the world: the loss of innocence, the destruction of youth, the collapse of order, the continuing spread of war.

Because we sentimentalize children and disprize soldiers, the very term “child soldier” has a disturbing resonance. Formerly we felt sorry and angry about the fate of children in disaster zones. Now we feel sorry and fearful.

According to a report from Amnesty International, In the Firing Line, there are at least 300,000 children under eighteen actively engaged in thirty-six armed conflicts around the world, a dozen of them in Africa. Such young people are the focus of a campaign by Amnesty and other human rights organizations to outlaw their participation in armed conflict. The proposal is to expand the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to include a new protocol banning military recruitment below the age of eighteen (the current limit is fifteen). This move is opposed by a number of countries, including the United States and also Britain, where sixteen-year-olds are still recruited into the armed forces.

Like others of my generation growing up in England in the 1960s and 1970s I was a child soldier myself, from the age of fourteen to sixteen, a less-than-willing recruit to a ramshackle organization known as the Combined Cadet Force. We were, in theory, potential conscripts in the event of the reintroduction of national service. I was also a member of Amnesty International. On Thursdays I learned to shoot; on Saturdays I rattled a collection box outside the school chapel.

Since those days I have worked as an anthropologist and aid worker in various African countries. One day a week playing war games as a schoolboy is nothing like being a bush fighter, but talking to trigger-happy teenage sentries in Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere has made me come to doubt that these kidogos—little ones—as they are called in East and Central Africa, see their situation in the terms that human rights researchers do, any more than I did myself when I was a military cadet. I doubt that they would even accept that …

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