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The Warrior Children

It was in the early 1990s that Cornelio Sommaruga, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, began talking about the new kind of warfare his delegates were witnessing, one in which there was no respect for either the laws of war or the sign of the Red Cross, no clear lines of command, and in which civilians, rather than enemy soldiers, were targets for marauding bands of killers, often in fanciful uniforms and heavily drugged. Rwanda, where neighbors hacked each other to death with machetes, happened soon after, and Srebrenica, where eight thousand Muslim men were led away under the eyes of UN peacekeepers and murdered, and Sierra Leone, in which villagers thought to be sympathetic to the government had their hands and arms chopped off by rebel troops. In this new kind of war, said Sommaruga, everyone and everything—babies, crops, livestock, houses, old people—had become fair game. Graça Machel, in Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, her report to the UN in 1996 on children and war, spoke of the “desolate moral vacuum” left by protracted states of disorders, fueled not by governments but by warlords and insurgents.

While there are those who are skeptical about a new barbarity, citing the actions of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, the fact remains that anarchical killings, maimings, and rape continue and that what happened in Rwanda in 1993 is happening in Darfur now. It has become commonplace to quote the fact that whereas only one in ten of all casualties in World War I was a civilian, that figure has risen to nine out of ten today. A large number of these are children. What is less known is that a growing number of their killers are children themselves. As P.W. Singer points out in his new study, Children at War, child soldiers, some of whom are no older than six, are to be found in three quarters of the world’s current fifty or so conflicts. In Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), 80 percent of the fighters were aged between seven and fourteen. Twenty thousand children are reported to have served in Liberia’s protracted civil wars, and there were many children among Rwanda’s génocidaires. As if to make their use more palatable, many of these children were given childlike names. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka had a Baby Brigade and called their girl soldiers “Birds of Freedom”; there were “Little Bells” and “Little Bees” in Colombia and “Brave Sprouts” in Myanmar. Saddam Hussein called his child warriors “Lion Cubs.”

There is, however, very little that is childlike about these children. Recruited from orphanages, refugee camps, the slums of impoverished cities, or among those made destitute by AIDS, famine, and war, children turn out to make excellent soldiers. They are cheap, plentiful, easy to abduct, quick to train, and readily drugged, terrorized, and conditioned into committing reckless atrocities. In what seems a remarkably short period of time—fifteen years? twenty years?—children have gone from being unacceptable as fighters in conflict (beyond the occasional drummer boy and midshipman) to being some of its most worrying participants. Girls, who make up perhaps a third of recruits and who are forced to become the sexual partners of adult soldiers, are reported to be among the children who most readily become brutal.

What brought all this about, as Singer points out, is in part the emergence of warlords and rebel armies hastening to fill the void left by failing states, seeking control not so much of countries as of poppy and diamond fields, or of coltan mines, which provide a mineral needed for cell phones and laptops. But the use of children was also made possible by the lightness, availability, and cheapness of weapons, the rifles, grenades, mortars, and machine guns dumped in the wake of the end of the cold war. You no longer have to be rich or strong to carry a Kalashnikov: it weighs little more than a small dog and, in parts of Africa at least, costs about the same as a chicken. A handful of children today, it seems, has the equivalent firepower of an entire regiment of Napoleonic infantry.

The impact of all these child soldiers, estimated at some 300,000 worldwide by Singer, lies, as Kofi Annan warned in June 2002, far beyond the time of actual fighting or the number of children directly involved. Not only have conflicts fought by children become easier to start, harder to end, messier, and with greater loss of life, but they are creating a brutalized and disaffected generation who are growing up knowing nothing but violence. “You won’t believe how isolated they are, how little they know of the outside world,” a local observer told The Washington Post in the spring of 2001, talking about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. “They don’t know life without a gun.” Seemingly defeated rebel forces bounce back with disconcerting speed: when the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda appeared to have been broken finally by the Ugandan army in 2002, it was able to return rapidly to the field by abducting a further 8,400 children.1 And for all of this, argues Singer, the West must take some kind of responsibility, both for moral and economic reasons and because it is in its own interest to do so. Failed states fought over by warlords with their child armies become havens for terrorist recruitment. Child soldiers make ready suicide bombers. As Fadl Abu Hein, a lecturer in Gaza, noted not long ago: “Martyrdom has become an ambition for our children.”

Many people since Sommaruga have warned of anarchical war and the perils of using children as soldiers. Singer’s strength lies in the way that he has meticulously pulled together practically all the available evidence and research, whether from the human rights world, from reporters on the ground, or from academic studies. It is not surprising, perhaps, that it is the second half of his book, dealing with the implications and with the future, that is the more troubling. If you have recruited and trained so many children—there are now veterans aged fourteen who have far more experience of soldiering than most Western soldiers do—what do you do with them when a conflict ends? Uneducated, lawless, violent, druggy, often infected by venereal disease, these young soldiers are, as one psychiatrist put it, “ticking time-bombs.” Reeducation and rehabilitation programs are woefully underfunded and inadequate, and most former child soldiers, unable to go home, either because their home no longer exists or because, as killers, they are no longer welcome there, often have little choice but to live on the streets or seek employment with other rebel forces. Many emerge from these conflicts severely traumatized and suicidal, having been forced to witness and perform acts that they cannot afterward forget. “Some children sit and look at running water and just see blood,” an aid worker reported to Human Rights Watch.2

When, early in 2000, demographers started talking about the “lost orphan generation,” they were usually referring to the 1.8 million South Africans who had lost one or both parents to AIDS. Long before that, however, the term “lost” had been used to describe another group of children altogether, also from Africa: these were the “lost boys” of Sudan, so called after Peter Pan’s orphans cast as children into the world of adults. These “lost boys” were the 3,800 young Sudanese chosen from among the survivors of the thousands who had been separated from their families in Sudan’s long civil war between North and South, and who now, in the new century and amid considerable publicity, were being welcomed to new lives in the US. It is instructive to read their stories in They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky alongside Singer’s drier and more academic book: together they not only give a memorable picture of the violence into which so many African children are born today, but act as a reminder that boy soldiers were not born soldiers, and that many shared with the lost boys early childhoods of safety and happiness.

Between 1982 and 2002 the US admitted 1.8 million refugees, 80 percent of them from countries either traditionally hostile to America or where it had intervened militarily, as in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In those years, the US resettlement program, the largest such program in the world, looked favorably on Nicaraguans, whose Marxist rulers US officials deplored, and turned their backs on Guatemalans, whose rightist government they endorsed. But by the end of the 1990s, the pool of “good” refugees was shrinking, while there were growing complaints from the Congressional Black Caucus about the very low number of Africans being admitted. The “lost boys” of Sudan, many of them Christian, were the perfect solution, at least until September 11, when the resettlement program was temporarily halted, leaving a considerable number of other hopeful boys still in refugee camps in Kenya, where many had already spent almost a decade.

It was in fact as early as 1987 that relief workers in refugee camps in Ethiopia had first reported ragged columns of “walking skeletons,” young boys arriving from over the border with Sudan. One man spoke of “only naked bodies…as far as the eye could see.” Those who made it to the camps appeared haunted by a long trail of fear, physical suffering, and loss. Nearly all were boys who as seven- and eight-year-olds had been tending cattle away from their villages in southern Sudan when the militias attacked, killing everyone they found. Most of the girls, closer to home, died with their parents. Many other boys died along the way, of malaria, exhaustion, hunger, or picked off by lions. Psychologists in the camps, interviewing the boys, found that 97 percent had witnessed at least one killing and 85 percent had watched someone starve to death. Few had had any contact with parents after the age of seven.

Among the 3,800 fortunate enough to be selected to settle in the US were two brothers, Benson and Alephonsion Deng, and their cousin, Benjamin Ajak, and when they arrived in San Diego, they were befriended through the International Rescue Committee by a volunteer called Judy Bernstein. Bernstein knew nothing about Africa but she had an idea that telling their stories could only do these troubled young men good. Even as they began the slow and painful—and sometimes comic—process of adjusting to an alien and infinitely confusing world, Bernstein urged them to record on paper what they remembered of their childhoods in Sudan and their long walks to safety. Their accounts, written first in lesson books and later transcribed to computers, have been skillfully put together in a narrative, each boy carrying both his own story and that of their joint flight and reunion forward. The result is both fascinating and immediate, not least because of the guilelessness of the language and the particularly African use of metaphor and imagery. “We, little boys,” recalls Alephonsion, “were so messy, all chaos and cries filling the dark, fiercely lightless night.”

They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky conjures up a world of marabou storks, acacia trees, termite mounds taller than men, scorpions and snakes that move about in the dark, a world governed by traditions, rituals, seasons, weather, and obligations, in which small boys make toy animals out of charcoal and ashes and play with them in the sand. When driven by terror away from their burning villages in the Bhar-al-Ghazal region of southern Sudan, each of these three boys wandered alone before joining a group of other refugees. They walked for days, without food and with very little water. The landscape they crossed was littered with land mines and under the few trees they saw rotting corpses and the skulls of those who had collapsed from hunger and thirst. Before reaching the safety of a refugee camp, each had spent time with bands of rebel fighters, doing forced labor, threatened and beaten if they tried to escape. The boys were always hungry and often ill, with yellow fever, infected wounds, and malaria. Once they reached the refugee camps, life remained extremely hard: there was seldom enough to eat, and most had scabies, ringworm, and “lice like fat sesame seeds.” Benson, who had never seen a white person, noted that the aid workers “moved their heads up and down like happy salamanders.”

What Benjamin and his cousins soon discovered was that you could get either food or education in the camp but seldom both. The camps were places of waiting: waiting for something to happen, waiting to be told something, waiting for the war to end. Having to scavenge for food to supplement their meager rations took the entire day. Even so, the desire to learn, the conviction that education alone could in some way redeem something of the horror of the past, infected all of them, and they remembered the song taught by missionaries to Dinka children: “Learning is the best…. Even if we tire/We shall endure/to find its sweetness later on.” On reaching the US, their first thought was of school.

Whether these three boys found the education they dreamed of goes beyond the scope of their book. But the story of what happened to many of the others is the subject of Mark Bixler’s The Lost Boys of Sudan, in which education—the longing for it, the struggle to get it, the anguish at failed tests—is a continuous theme. Bixler, a reporter in Atlanta, decided to follow the fortunes of a number of lost boys—out of the 3,800 arrivals, only a hundred were girls—who settled in Atlanta over a period of two years. He watched and recorded the way they absorbed skyscrapers, handled job interviews, learned to flush toilets, and puzzled over air conditioning, alarm clocks, gas stoves, running hot water, ice, dog food, and dishwashers.

Learning to cook broccoli and open cans did not take long, but the education the young men longed for has proved more elusive. Scattered in thirty cities from Seattle to Jacksonville, the Lost Boys, obliged to get jobs to survive, have found it immensely hard to secure places in colleges and just as hard to keep them. Night jobs in post offices, bakeries, and restaurants make daytime study very tough. For many of them, English is their fourth language. Assigned on arrival in the US a common birthday—January 1—and an age that seemed appropriate, for none of them knew how old they really were, they were certainly for the most part well beyond conventional school age.

Some of the philanthropists and well-wishers described by Bixler have proved keener on the attendant publicity than on setting up and paying for the lessons the young men have repeatedly asked for. His account of the misconceptions and misunderstandings, both among the lonely and sometimes obsessive housewives eager to befriend such exotic newcomers and the young Sudanese themselves, disappointed to discover that resettlement did not, as they all believed, involve automatic education, makes sad reading.

But these are early days. Unlike the labyrinth of the asylum process throughout the Western world, with its contradictions, suspicions, fears, and incompetent bureaucracy, resettlement has been hugely successful, not just in the US but in the dozen or so countries committed to it. The International Rescue Committee, one of the main resettlement agencies in the US, estimates that 90 percent of new arrivals got jobs within six months.

Conscientiously, Singer lists the many covenants, agreements, treaties, and protocols that comprehensively prohibit the use of child soldiers, documents which have been signed and ratified by many of the countries where children are at war. The problem lies in enforcing them. The proposals for doing so that Singer puts forward are eminently sensible. They include making the issue a crime of war, alongside mass killings and chemical weapons, enforcing economic sanctions, and more systematic backing for the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. But while the US and British governments waste time debating whether childhood can reasonably be defined to continue until the age of eighteen, and President Bush refuses to clamp down on the trade in light weapons, the recruitment of desperate, biddable children can only continue. It is hardly surprising that Singer’s closing pages sound so wan, or that Kofi Annan’s warnings are so bleak.


















  1. 1

    See Tim Judah’s report, “Uganda: The Secret War,” The New York Review, September 23, 2004.

  2. 2

    See The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, a report by Human Rights Watch, September 1997.

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