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 …

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