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Resources on the Plight of Child Soldiers

Beah, Ishmael.  A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008). This gripping story by a children’s-rights advocate recounts his experiences as a boy growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, during one of the most brutal and violent civil wars in recent history. Beah, a boy equally thrilled by causing mischief … Continued

Beah, Ishmael.  A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008).

This gripping story by a children’s-rights advocate recounts his experiences as a boy growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, during one of the most brutal and violent civil wars in recent history. Beah, a boy equally thrilled by causing mischief as by memorizing passages from Shakespeare and dance moves from hip-hop videos, was a typical precocious 12-year-old. But rebel forces destroyed his childhood innocence when they hit his village, driving him to leave his home and travel the arid deserts and jungles of Africa. After several months of struggle, he was recruited by the national army, made a full soldier and learned to shoot an AK-47, and hated everyone who came up against the rebels. The first two thirds of his memoir are frightening: how easy it is for a normal boy to transform into someone as addicted to killing as he is to the cocaine that the army makes readily available. But an abrupt change occurred a few years later when agents from the United Nations pulled him out of the army and placed him in a rehabilitation center. Anger and hate slowly faded away, and readers see the first glimmers of Beah’s work as an advocate. Told in a conversational, accessible style, this powerful record of war ends as a beacon to all teens experiencing violence around them by showing them that there are other ways to survive than by adding to the chaos.  (Matthew L. Moffet, for School Library Journal)

Bok, Francis.  Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity and My Journey to Freedom in America (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004).

May, 1986: Selling his mother’s eggs and peanuts near his village in southern Sudan, seven year old Francis Bok’s life was shattered when Arab raiders on horseback, armed with rifles and long knives, burst into the quiet marketplace, murdering men and women and gathering the young children into a group. Strapped to horses and donkeys, Francis and others were taken north, into lives of slavery under wealthy Muslim farmers.

For ten years, Francis lived alone in a shed near the goats and cattle that were his responsibility. Fed with scraps from the table, slowly learning bits of an unfamiliar language and religion, the boy had almost no human contact other than his captor’s family. After two failed attempts to escape-each bringing severe beatings and death threats-Francis finally escaped at age seventeen, a dramatic breakaway on foot that was his final chance. Yet his slavery did not end there, for even as he made his way toward the capital city of Khartoum, others sought to deprive him of his freedom. Determined to avoid that fate and discover what had happened to his family on that terrible day in 1986, the teenager persevered through prison and refugee camps for three more years, winning the attention of United Nations officials and being granted passage to America.

Now a student and an anti-slavery activist, Francis Bok has made it his life mission to combat world slavery. His is the first voice to speak for an estimated twenty seven million people held against their will in nearly every nation, including our own. Escape from Slavery is at once a riveting adventure, a story of desperation and triumph, and a window revealing a world that few have survived to tell.

Brett, Rachel and Irma Specht.  Young Soldiers: Why they Choose to Fight (Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2004).

They are part of rebel factions, national armies, paramilitaries, and other armed groups and entrenched in some of the most violent conflicts around the globe. They are in some ways still children – yet, from Afghanistan to Sierra Leone to Northern Ireland, you can find them among the fighters. Why? Young Soldiers explores the reasons that adolescents who are neither physically forced nor abducted choose to join armed groups. Drawing on in-depth interviews with the soldiers themselves, the authors challenge conventional wisdom to offer a thought-provoking account of the role that war, poverty, education, politics, identity, family, and friends all play in driving these young men and women to join military life. They also address the important issues of demobilization and the reintegration process. International in scope, covering a variety of situations in Afghanistan, Colombia, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom, Young Soldiers concludes with a discussion of the steps needed to create an environment in which adolescents are no longer “forced” to volunteer.

Briggs, Jimmie.  Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War (Basic Books, 2005).

Ida, a member of Sri Lanka’s Female Tamil Tigers, fought with one of the longest-surviving and successful guerilla movements in the world. She is sixteen. Francois, a fourteen-year-old Rwandan child of mixed ethnicity, was forced by Hutu militiamen to hack to death his sister’s Tutsi children.

More than 250,000 children have fought in three dozen conflicts around the world, but growing exploitation of children in war is staggering and little known. From the “little bees” of Colombia to the “baby brigades” of Sri Lanka, the subject of child soldiers is changing the face of terrorism. For the last seven years, Jimmie Briggs has been talking to, writing about, and researching the plight of these young combatants. The horrific stories of these children, dramatically told in their own voices, reveal the devastating consequences of this global tragedy. Cogent, passionate, impeccably researched, and compellingly told, Innocents Lost is the fullest, most personal and powerful examination yet of the lives of child soldiers.

Dallaire, Romeo.  They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers (Random House Canada, 2010).

In conflicts around the world, there is an increasingly popular weapon system that requires negligible technology, is simple to sustain, has unlimited versatility and incredible capacity for both loyalty and barbarism. In fact, there is no more complete end-to-end weapon system in the inventory of war-machines. What are these cheap, renewable, plentiful, sophisticated and expendable weapons? Children.

Roméo Dallaire was first confronted with child soldiers in unnamed villages on the tops of the thousand hills of Rwanda during the genocide of 1994. The dilemma of the adult soldier who faced them is beautifully expressed in his book’s title: when children are shooting at you, they are soldiers, but as soon as they are wounded or killed they are children once again.

Believing that not one of us should tolerate a child being used in this fashion, Dallaire has made it his mission to end the use of child soldiers. In this book, he provides an intellectually daring and enlightening introduction to the child soldier phenomenon, as well as inspiring and concrete solutions to eradicate it.

Denov, Myriam.  Child Soldiers: Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Tragically, violence and armed conflict have become commonplace in the lives of many children around the world. Not only have millions of children been forced to witness war and its atrocities, but many are drawn into conflict as active participants. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Sierra Leone during its 11-year civil war. Drawing upon in-depth interviews and focus groups with former child soldiers of Sierra Leone’s rebel Revolutionary United Front, Myriam Denov compassionately examines how child soldiers are initiated into the complex world of violence and armed conflict. She also explores the ways in which the children leave this world of violence and the challenges they face when trying to renegotiate their lives and self-concepts in the aftermath of war. The narratives of the Sierra Leonean youth demonstrate that their life histories defy the narrow and limiting portrayals presented by the media and popular discourse.

de Temmerman, Els.  Aboke Girls, Children Abducted in Northern Uganada (Fountain Publishers, 1995). 

In October 1996, one hundred and thirty nine girls were abducted from St Mary’s College, in northern Uganda. In an act of extraordinary courage, Sister Rachele, the Italian deputy headmistress, followed the abductors. Her journey took her to the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, where she managed to secure the release of the majority of the girls. What happened to the remaining thirty girls and thousands of other children who have disappeared from their homes and schools in northern Uganda since the arrival of the Lord’s Resistance Army? In this book journalist Els De Temmerman reconstructs the journey of two Aboke girls who managed to excape and one of the abductors, a fourteen year old boy who was part of Kony’s elite troops.

Dunson, Donald.  Child, Victim, Soldier: The Loss of Innocence in Uganda (Orbis Books, 2008).

“I was kidnapped by rebels when I was just twelve and forced to do unspeakable things.” Like The Bite of the Mango (2008) by Mariatu Kamara and Susan McClelland, this searing title is about children at war today, as casualties and as forced perpetrators of brutality. Dunson, a Cleveland missionary priest, travels regularly to northern Uganda to spend summers among formerly abducted child soldiers, and he constantly invokes his Christian beliefs as his inspiration to work for peace. With his interviews of formerly abducted children, including boys forced to kill their families and girls subjected to routine sexual abuse, he also includes historical background not only on the tribal factors behind the current strife but also on the early European colonialists’ role in the scramble for African rule. The personal stories will draw teens to the fundamental issues: Is healing possible? Should children be held responsible? Why does the world stand silent and indifferent? Grades 8-12.  (Hazel Rochman for Booklist)

Eichstaedt, Peter.  First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (Lawrence Hill Books, 2009).

With a high literacy rate and AIDS seemingly under control, Uganda enjoyed a fine international reputation until it fell prey to revolution. For 20 years, the rebel army has killed and victimized tens of thousands and caused the displacement of two million people. American journalist Eichstaedt has spent over two years there, speaking to many soldiers and victims, including young boys forced to fight, young girl “brides” forced into prostitution, and refugees held in detention camps. He also talks with local politicians (including the rebel militia that cloaks itself in Christian rhetoric) and with UN leaders trying to forge peace. There are several memoirs told from the point of view of child soldiers, but Eichstaedt’s broader, less-personal study offers another perspective. His blend of interviews with observation and analysis of political history, including comparisons between Uganda and neighboring Rwanda, Sudan, and Congo, raises the elemental questions: Why didn’t the world know or care about what was happening? Why do people rebel and how does rebellion get out of hand? And is the call for forgiveness merely a way to prevent reprisals? (Hazel Rochman for Booklist)

Gates, Scott and Simon Reich.  Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

Current global estimates of children engaged in warfare range from 200,000 to 300,000. Children’s roles in conflict range from armed and active participants to spies, cooks, messengers, and sex slaves. Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States examines the factors that contribute to the use of children in war, the effects of war upon children, and the perpetual cycle of warfare that engulfs many of the world’s poorest nations.

The contributors seek to eliminate myths of historic or culture-based violence, and instead look to common traits of chronic poverty and vulnerable populations. Individual essays examine topics such as: the legal and ethical aspects of child soldiering; internal UN debates over enforcement of child protection policies; economic factors; increased access to small arms; displaced populations; resource endowments; forced government conscription; rebel-enforced quota systems; motivational techniques employed in recruiting children; and the role of girls in conflict.

The contributors also offer viable policies to reduce the recruitment of child soldiers such as the protection of refugee camps by outside forces, “naming and shaming,” and criminal prosecution by international tribunals. Finally, they focus on ways to reintegrate former child soldiers into civil society in the aftermath of war.

Honwama, Alcinda.  Child Soldiers in Africa (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

Young people have been at the forefront of political conflict in many parts of the world, even when it has turned violent. In some of those situations, for a variety of reasons, including coercion, poverty, or the seductive nature of violence, children become killers before they are able to grasp the fundamentals of morality. It has been only in the past ten years that this component of warfare has captured the attention of the world. Images of boys carrying guns and ammunition are now commonplace as they flash across television screens and appear on the front pages of newspapers. Less often, but equally disturbingly, stories of girls pressed into the service of militias surface in the media.

A major concern today is how to reverse the damage done to the thousands of children who have become not only victims but also agents of wartime atrocities. In Child Soldiers in Africa, Alcinda Honwana draws on her firsthand experience with children of Angola and Mozambique, as well as her study of the phenomenon for the United Nations and the Social Science Research Council, to shed light on how children are recruited, what they encounter, and how they come to terms with what they have done. Honwana looks at the role of local communities in healing and rebuilding the lives of these children. She also examines the efforts undertaken by international organizations to support these wartime casualties and enlightens the reader on the obstacles faced by such organizations.

Jal, Emmanuel.  War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010).

In the mid-1980s, Emmanuel Jal was a seven year old Sudanese boy living in a small village. But after his mother was killed and his father Simon rose to become a powerful commander in the Christian Sudanese Liberation Army, fighting for the freedom of Sudan.  Soon, Jal was conscripted into that army, one of 10,000 child soldiers, and fought through two separate civil wars over nearly a decade.
Orphaned and adrift, Jal lived through horror: marching through miles of desert toward Ethiopia, past the bones of adults and children who had fallen on the trek; witnessing the deaths of friends and family members; killing soldiers and civilians with a gun he could barely lift; starving to the point of near-cannibalism, and coming to the edge of suicide. Remarkably, Jal survived, and his life began to change when he was adopted by a British aid worker. He slowly began the journey that would lead him to music: recording and releasing his own album, which produced the number one hip-hop single in Kenya, and from there went on to perform with Moby, Bono, Peter Gabriel, and other international music stars.

Kahn, Leora.  Child Solders (PowerHouse Books, 2008).

Up to half a million children have been engaged in more than 85 conflicts worldwide. As armed conflict proliferates, increasing numbers of children are exposed to the brutalities of war. Boys and girls around the world are recruited to be child soldiers by armed forces and militant groups, either forcibly or voluntarily. Some are tricked into service by manipulative recruiters, others join in order to escape poverty or discrimination, while still others are outright abducted at school, on the streets, and at home. Aside from participating in combat, many are used for sexual purposes, made to lay and clear land mines, or employed as spies, messengers, porters, or servants. Kids have become the ultimate weapons of twenty-first-century war. Child Soldiers focuses on countries with a history of child warfare, as captured by photographers and writers from across the globe. The book explores the children’s time as combatants, as well as their demobilization and rehabilitation. Included are Tim Hetherington’s photographs from Liberia; Roger Lemoyne and Cedric Gerbehaye’s work from the Congo; Ami Vitale’s series on child Maoist recruits in Nepal; and other work from Burma, Columbia, the Central African Republic, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Palestine.

London, Charles.  One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War (Harper Perennial, 2007).

London, working with the nonprofit organization Refugees International, interviewed child soldiers and other young people affected by ethnic conflict in Africa, Burma and the Balkans to bring their plight to the attention of his fellow Americans. The narrative that emerges is a fine accomplishment, tying together the horrific stories of countless children against a merciless landscape of undersupplied refugee camps, belligerent authority figures and the constant threat of renewed violence. London tells of children forced into prostitution and military service, Burmese refugees unable to leave their dreary Bangkok apartments for fear of deportation and other tragic consequences of conflict; the stories are chilling and London is an able interviewer, getting children to open up by joining their soccer games and getting them to draw pictures. London began his project at age 21, and has a neophyte’s penchant for self-regard and melodrama (“She is looking though her life, to some place else, some future bliss that is forever out of reach”); letting the stories speak for themselves would have bolstered their resonance. Regardless, this is a moving and important account of war’s youngest victims in a region that too rarely enters the American consciousness. (Publishers Weekly)

McDonnell, Faith.  Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).

For several decades a brutal army of rebels has been raiding villages in northern Uganda, kidnapping children and turning them into soldiers or wives of commanders. More than 30,000 children have been abducted over the last twenty years and forced to commit unspeakable crimes. Grace Akallo was one of these. Her story, which is the story of many Ugandan children, recounts her terrifying experience. This unforgettable book–with historical background and insights from Faith McDonnell, one of the clearest voices in the church today calling for freedom and justice–will inspire readers around the world to take notice, pray, and work to end this tragedy.

Rosen, David M.  Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism (Rutgers University Press, 2005).

“No thinking person, no media commentator, no political leader can afford to be without this book—not if they care about the truth and want to understand one of the more awful realities of our time. It will stir you to action on behalf of the world’s vulnerable children.”—Phyllis Chesler, author of The New Anti-Semitism

Children have served as soldiers throughout history. They fought in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and in both world wars. They served as uniformed soldiers, camouflaged insurgents, and even suicide bombers. Indeed, the first U.S. soldier to be killed by hostile fire in the Afghanistan war was shot in ambush by a fourteen-year-old boy.

Does this mean that child soldiers are aggressors? Or are they victims? It is a difficult question with no obvious answer, yet in recent years the acceptable answer among humanitarian organizations and contemporary scholars has been resoundingly the latter. These children are most often seen as especially hideous examples of adult criminal exploitation.

In this provocative book, David M. Rosen argues that this response vastly oversimplifies the child soldier problem. Drawing on three dramatic examples—from Sierra Leone, Palestine, and Eastern Europe during the Holocaust—Rosen vividly illustrates this controversial view. In each case, he shows that children are not always passive victims, but often make the rational decision that not fighting is worse than fighting.

With a critical eye to international law, Armies of the Young urges readers to reconsider the situation of child combatants in light of circumstance and history before adopting uninformed child protectionist views. In the process, Rosen paints a memorable and unsettling picture of the role of children in international conflicts.

Singer, P.W.  Children at War (University of California Press, 2006).

From U.S. soldiers having to fight children in Afghanistan and Iraq to juvenile terrorists in Sri Lanka to Palestine, the new, younger face of battle is a terrible reality of 21st century warfare. Indeed, the very first American soldier killed by hostile fire in the “War on Terrorism” was shot by a fourteen-year-old Afghan boy. Children at War is the first comprehensive examination of a disturbing and escalating phenomenon: the use of children as soldiers around the globe. Interweaving explanatory narrative with the voices of child soldiers themselves, P.W. Singer, an internationally recognized expert in modern warfare, introduces the brutal reality of conflict, where children are sent off to fight in war-torn hotspots from Colombia and the Sudan to Kashmir and Sierra Leone. He explores the evolution of this phenomenon, how and why children are recruited, indoctrinated, trained, and converted to soldiers and then lays out the consequences for global security, with a special case study on terrorism. With this established, he lays out the responses that can end this horrible practice. What emerges is not only a compelling and clarifying read on the darker reality of modern warfare, but also a clear and urgent call for action.

Wessells, Michael.  Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Compelling and humane, this book reveals the lives of the 300,000 child soldiers around the world, challenging stereotypes of them as predators or a lost generation. Kidnapped or lured by the promise of food, protection, revenge, or a better life, children serve not only as combatants but as porters, spies, human land mine detectors, and sexual slaves. Nearly one-third are girls, and Michael Wessells movingly reveals the particular dangers they face from pregnancy, childbirth complications, and the rejection they and their babies encounter in their local contexts.

Based mainly on participatory research and interviews with hundreds of former child soldiers worldwide, Wessells allows these ex-soldiers to speak for themselves and reveal the enormous complexity of their experiences and situations. The author argues that despite the social, moral, and psychological wounds of war, a surprising number of former child soldiers enter civilian life, and he describes the healing, livelihood, education, reconciliation, family integration, protection, and cultural supports that make it possible. A passionate call for action, Child Soldiers pushes readers to go beyond the horror stories to develop local and global strategies to stop this theft of childhood.

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