“Eyes wide, scream­ing in pain, fear and ha­tred”

Child sol­diers in re­cent con­flicts in Africa have been forced to par­tic­i­pate in a num­ber of ter­ri­ble atroc­i­ties

BBC Earth (Asia) - - History - Emma Butcher is a re­searcher in English Lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Hull, UK

The im­pact of child sol­diers was ramped up to bru­tal new lev­els dur­ing the African civil wars of the 1990s, with mer­ce­nar­ies, gangs, arms deal­ers, mili­tias and weak­ened gov­ern­ments all in­cor­po­rat­ing chil­dren into their ranks. In Liberia, ‘Small Boys Units’ were fre­quently used by the war­lord/pres­i­dent Charles Tay­lor. Armed with Uzis or AK-47s, chil­dren would be used to en­gage against UN peace­keep­ers, pil­lage and plun­der com­mu­ni­ties, or com­mit mass atroc­i­ties. One for­mer child sol­dier re­called “the scent of gun­pow­der, eyes sting­ing from smoke, your friend cry­ing… it was ter­ri­ble. I missed my mother at that mo­ment.”

Chil­dren were also used by the FDLR (Demo­cratic Forces for the Lib­er­a­tion of Rwanda) to take part in the coun­try’s dev­as­tat­ing 1994 geno­cide. Boys aged 14 and younger, many of them or­phaned and des­per­ate for pro­tec­tion, were drugged, kid­napped and sold, then forced to act as com­bat­ants tak­ing part in rape, mu­ti­la­tion and the killing of civil­ians. A stag­ger­ing 800,000 peo­ple were mur­dered in the space of just 100 days. As the com­man­der of the UN mis­sion in Rwanda said at the time: “Those child sol­diers’ eyes were wide and bril­liant, scream­ing in pain and an­guish, fear and ha­tred.” For th­ese fresh-faced fighters, the in­no­cence of youth is short-lived.

A child fighter in the streets of Liberia’s cap­i­tal, Mon­rovia, 1996

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