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Imagine, at the age of ten, being abducted from your family and forced to go to war. Jon Kindberg looks at the terrifying world of child soldiers.

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At a time when most kids would be learning algebra, China Keitetsi was already an experienced warrior with many lives on her conscience. Now 27, the former child soldier joined the National Resistance Army in Uganda in the 1980’s, when she was nine years old. There, she was given her fist Uzi. “They gave us weapons, made us fight their war, made us hate, kill, torture, and made us their girlfriends; we had no choice… When I was 14, I gave birth to my son, and when I was 15 years old, I couldn’t count how many officers had already used my body,” she told BBC News earlier this year.

Unfortunately, her story is not unique. Research shows that worldwide, more than half a million children under 18 have been recruited to join armed forces, paramilitaries and civil militia in more than 30 countries. Their reasons for joining these groups vary. Due to the breakdown of social structures during armed conflicts, giving children no access to school, separating them from their families and often destroying their homes, many see joining armed groups as the only way to survive. Others are looking to avenge family members who have been killed. Some are also abducted from their homes and forced to become soldiers. After being recruited or forced into service, child soldiers are often used in combat operations, for sexual purposes, to lay or clear landmines or to work as spies, messengers, porters or servants.

At any time, more than 300,000 children are actively fighting as soldiers. “The problem is very widespread,” Sarah Greene from Amnesty International tells The Situation. “It reaches from Uganda, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Sierra Leone, to Columbia, to several places in South Asia.”

Many children have suffered greatly in the last decade, especially in Western Africa. Experts suggest that during the long civil war and ensuing rebel riots in Liberia between 1989-1995, more than 21,000 children took part in the fighting. In neighbouring Sierra Leone, where 11-year conflict was only settled in 1999, many minors were forced to witness and take part in horrible crimes against civilians, including amputations, rape, beheadings and burning people alive. Over 7,000 children served as soldiers in Sierra Leone.

One of them was Ernest Foday Mannah. In 1991, at the age of eight, he was taken by rebels in his home-town of Kailahun, Sierra Leone. “I was captured at a playing field together with my playmates and friends,” he says in his account of the events. Following the death of his two friends, and after being forced to spy on government troops, he tried to escape. He was caught and beaten. “I was further tied to a branch of an ant-infested tree, with head down and feet upwards. I stayed for about two hours in that painful up-side-down posture,” he says.

This form of abuse is not uncommon. Many child soldiers are frequently punished by beatings, torture or even murder. In addition, children are often heavily drugged in order to keep them detached, fearless and brutal. “I was doing all this not with myself but with the “morale booster” that I took before leaving for the battlefield,” a former child soldier told the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) in Sierra Leone. This “morale booster” includes cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. Says another ex-soldier: “I was injected with cocaine and then given an AK-47 rifle to carry. I started going to front lines killing people, raping and doing all sorts of bad things.”

One of the reasons child soldiers are so commonly used in war zones, as cynical as it is, is that they need less food than an adult fighter. Also, when conflicts drag on, children are used to maintain high numbers of fighters even after heavy casualties. “Children are more vulnerable, not fully matured and not independent decision makers. They are effectively easier to train and to brutalise and force into a very violent life,” explains Amnesty’s Sarah Greene. “It’s not about proper enrolment and pay. It’s just about force.”

Girl soldiers are frequently forced to provide sexual services as well as to fight. “I don’t know how many people had sex with me,” said Fabienne to Amnesty, who was 13 when she was abducted from her home in Burundi. “A man would come, then another and another. You couldn’t refuse… they said they’d kill you if you ran away.” Especially in Angola, Sierra Leone and Uganda, it is commonplace that rebel leaders sexually abuse young girls and force them to become their ‘wives’. According to Human Rights Watch, girl soldiers in northern Uganda have been known to have had babies by rebel commanders, only to be forced to strap them to their backs and continue fighting against National Security forces.

Also, with the supply of lighter weapons like the M-16 and AK-47 rifles, some places for as little as £10 a piece, arming children as young as eight has become easier. To train child soldiers in handling these weapons, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone would set up special training camps. After attacking a village, and often raping the young women and beating the men to death, RUF soldiers would typically abduct the children, then hold and train them for two or three months. After a brutal initiation, often involving maiming or killing those who tried to escape, they would be considered ready for combat.

Says Albert, who was 15 when he was recruited by an opposition group in the Democratic Republic of Congo: “They would give us “chavre” [cannabis] and force us to kill people to toughen us up. Sometimes they brought us women and girls to rape… They would beat us if we refused.”

Understandably, the psychological effects on children exposed to this brutal environment are very serious. Says an ex- Sierra Leone child soldier to iEARN: “I’m different now, I’ll not be able to live with my family… I like the sound of guns, I’ve been used to the jungle. I feel excited when I hear the sound of guns, but now I’m lonely, living like this is too boring.” As most child soldiers are also denied any form of education, it is difficult for them to peacefully re-join society when the fighting finishes. As a result, former child soldiers tend to be drawn to a life of crime.

To help children escape this fate, international government programmes designed to disarm and rehabilitate ex-soldiers have been set up in Mozambique, Angola, Somalia and recently in Sierra Leone. However, this process is complex and long-term, and does not stop the flow of children into armed groups.

In an effort to prevent this continuing recruitment, using child fighters has been outlawed by international law and by the newly established International Criminal Court (ICC.) The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child also has an important protocol which prohibits the use of children under the age of 18 in armed forces. Some countries, however, have opted out of that protocol. Britain is one of them.

“When discussing child soldiers, it is important to note that Britain still uses under 18s in the armed forces, which it’s not supposed to do,” Amnesty International tells The Situation. “By opting out of the protocol prohibiting the use of child soldiers, we’re not setting the right example. Britain is unusual in having done that.”

For China Keitetsi, however, the nightmare continues. A decade after she escaped her violent life with the National Resistance Army in Uganda, she can’t forget the abuses she suffered or the violence she had to commit, she tells the BBC. In her new book “Child Soldier,” she describes the years of pain and struggle she had to go through living her life as a child fighter.

Reading her story, one has to wonder; what will the future bring for the thousands of child soldiers of today? How will they grow up? And what happens to a country with an adult population of psychologically traumatised ex-soldiers? One thing however, is certain – no child will have a healthy childhood carrying an AK-47.

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