Children who become soldiers

'The image of a child-soldier as a helpless victim who is abducted and forced, is based on only one part of reality and requires nuance. Although the image works well for those organizations seeking to raise funds for their projects, this is a simplification that does not do justice to the complex reality of a civil war'.


by Saskia Baas

Over the past few years, the use of children as soldiers in armed conflict has become a source of immense moral outrage among rights activists as well as the general public. In 2005, the UN Security Council officially condemned the use of child-soldiers by parties to armed conflict and organizations such as Unicef and Save the Children have launched big campaigns to raise awareness on the tragic fate of children who become soldiers during civil wars in Africa, Asia and South America. Horrendous stories have surfaced of children who were abducted, drugged and turned into killing machines during the bloody civil wars in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. These stories form a legitimate ground for wide condemnation, indeed.

However, although the 'child-soldier' is often depicted as a helpless victim of the evil doings of other (adult) actors, this is a simplification that does not do justice to the complex reality of a civil war. During the civil war in South Sudan (1983-2005) the recruitment of children under the age of 18 was common practice in the largest rebel movement: the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The stories of these children - many of whom are by now adults and youngsters - challenge the image of childsoldiers as helpless victims, with no choice or opinion of their own. Meet Tricia, who joined the SPLA when she was ten years old. When the government army had killed her father, she decided she wanted to fight back: 'I became angry. I walked to a town where the SPLA was stationed and I said to them that I want to be a soldier. I took training for two years. I was still small and I was struggling even to carry the gun'. After she completed her training, the army leadership decided she was too young to fight and sent her to a refugee camp in Kenya to go to school. But after a year, she walked back to Sudan to join the army again: 'My heart didnít want to stay in the school. I wanted to fight. Every day in the school, my mind was thinking about going back to the army. This was because of what happened to my father. I was still angry.'

Another soldier, Moses , joined the rebels' side when he was twelve years old. His home area became very insecure as a result of the war. He explains that he joined the rebels after an attack on his village by the enemy: 'When the enemy came, they were killing people and taking the women and cows. They put fire in the house. My father was killed and three men in my sister's house. I was afraid, I ran away. In the forest, I found soldiers and I joined them.' Although the life of a soldier exposes children to extremely threatening circumstances, it is often overlooked that they were facing the same, or even worse threats in their home communities.

Civil war creates extreme insecurities, and becoming a soldier can be a form of seeking relative protection. Yet, life for children in the army was also harsh and dangerous. There was seldom enough food, and many soldiers died of hunger, malaria or diarrhoea. On the frontlines, soldiers saw their friends die in front of them and many got injured. Simon tells us how he got injured: 'When I was sixteen, I got shot in my leg. It had to be amputated and I now use an artificial leg. After that, I could not go back to battle. I stayed in the liberated areas, but still in uniform.' Philip also got injured when he was sixteen 'When we started to fight, I felt bad about it. The war made everything worse. People died, got hurt and fled. I got injured in my leg. I had to go to the hospital far from the battles. I had to stay behind in the barracks since then.' In the SPLA, it was not common for young children to be sent to the frontlines to fight, although there were exceptions to that rule. Many children who wanted to become soldiers were turned down altogether and sent to refugee camps, like what happened to Tricia.

Generally, children who were taken into the army were given lighter tasks in the barracks. Yet, some young soldiers recalled how eager they were to go to the frontlines, like Jacob: 'I was twelve when I joined the SPLA. I had to join the army, because I needed to protect myself. After the training, I was feeling strong. But the commanders thought I was still too young to fight, so I had to stay in the barracks with them. When I was thirteen, I didn't want to wait anymore, and they let me go to battle. They saw I was ready for it.' When possible, the SPLA organized classes for its soldiers in the barracks, mainly during ceasefires. Children were also sent to refugee camps or to safe areas for periods of time to attend school. Daniel explains how he was selected for education: 'I joined the SPLA when I was fourteen years old. Then, our commander came to the barracks and they said to me 'you are still young, you go to school'. Twenty were selected like that. I went to Kenya and finished my primary and secondary school there.' While life in the ranks of the army was extremely challenging for children, the life they had left behind was often not much better. Those who remained civilians throughout the war were subjected to attacks by the army, disease and famine. 

In 2005, the SPLA signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese government, putting an end to 20 years of a devastating civil war. Directly after the peace, rights groups pressured the SPLA to release all soldiers who were then under the age of 18. Unicef committed itself to help them reintegrate into civilian life, and received funds to do so, but never managed to get projects going. None of the young soldiers ever received any form of support from Unicef. They had to depend on their families, like Daniel, who was 16 when the peace was signed: 'After the peace, I travelled to where my uncle lives. I was released from the army to go to school and I like it. I am in class 7 now. When I finish my education, I want to teach my people how to plant crops and how to take care of them. I don't want a job in the army.' Since the peace, the SPLA is an official army, and its remaining soldiers started receiving salaries. Tricia is now 22 years old and earning about $200 a month, which makes her more than well-off for Sudanese standards. She talks about her future: 'I am now in the military intelligence. I also want to continue my education. I am going to ask for permission to go to school. But after I finish, I will come back to my job. I want to stay in the army. The army is my life.' Jacob is now thirty years old, and stationed in South Sudan's capital Juba where he is performing a civilian task. He hopes to find a way to continue his education, but this is difficult: 'The problem is that I am too old for the regular schools here. I've been in the army for 16 years now. I am a soldier, and I feel that I have to be in the army. It is a job, somehow. All my experience is in the army. I won't match in any other place. I belong in the army'. He is also now receiving a salary and is saving up for the dowry, as he is planning to get married and start a family. 

The image of a child-soldier as a helpless victim who is abducted and forced, is based on only one part of reality and requires nuance. Although the image works well for those organizations seeking to raise funds for their projects, it does not provide room for children who became soldiers in an attempt to shape their destinies. Civil wars expose people to horrendous experiences and make children specifically vulnerable. Under these threatening circumstances, becoming a fighter may be a perfectly rational way to seek protection, even for children. However, that should not diminish our moral outrage. If anything, it should redirect our indignation towards states and leaders who instigate these wars, and those who look away and fail to act.

Related article: Jan Pronk

Saskia Baas is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam, completing a dissertation on armed opposition movements in Sudan and has done extensive field work in Sudan in 2008-2009, interviewing around 80 rebels. Names in the article are not the respondents' real names.


Photo: Sorrisi/flickr