In his book Innocents Lost, Jimmie Briggs recounts picking up the New York Times one morning. Opening the newspaper, he was confronted by a disturbing image–a large photograph of a young Liberian kneeling and howling on a city street, his face contorted with rage as he pointed a gun at the photographer who had captured his image. This was no child’s play: The gun was real–an automatic rifle almost as big as the boy himself. As Briggs remembers, however, “More chilling than the weapon he held was what he wore on his back: a pink teddy-bear backpack, a telling symbol of his lost youth.” The boy, no more than 11 or 12, was a child soldier, one of the thousands who served during the Liberian civil wars of 1989-2003 and one of the hundreds of thousands of children who have served or are serving in armed conflicts around the globe. Possibly the world’s most unrecognized form of child abuse, child soldiering has become a defining feature of modern warfare. This horrifying new face of armed conflict is the subject of three important recent books–Briggs’s Innocents Lost, P.W. Singer’s Children at War and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.
Singer’s study leaves little doubt about just how prevalent the phenomenon has become. The statistics he presents speak for themselves. In more than three-fourths of armed conflicts around the world today there are significant numbers of child combatants. At any one time, there are more than 300,000 child soldiers serving with nonstate armed groups. In addition, more than fifty states actively recruit hundreds of thousands of soldiers under 18, in contravention of international law. It is in Africa, considered to be the epicenter of the child soldier phenomenon, that child soldiering is most widespread. Where there is conflict on the continent, one can be sure that children will be found right in the middle of it. In the 1991-2001 civil war between Sierra Leone’s government and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), as many as 80 percent of all fighters were between the ages of 7 and 14. In the two waves of civil war that engulfed Liberia between 1989 and 2003, up to 70 percent of government and rebel combatants were children. In the recent war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), ignited in 1996 by Laurent Kabila’s revolt against Mobutu’s regime, roughly half the fighters (between 30,000 and 50,000) were child soldiers. Perhaps the group most notorious for its exploitation of child soldiers is the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, which has been waging a bloody war against the government for almost eighteen years. Led by Joseph Kony, a man who claims to be possessed by the Holy Spirit and to be fighting to restore respect for the Ten Commandments (this while breaking every one), the LRA’s forces are composed almost entirely of children. The group, Singer informs us, “also holds the ignoble record of having the world’s youngest reported armed combatant, aged five.”
But while child soldiering is most widespread in Africa, the phenomenon is by no means confined to that continent. In Colombia, a country that has been in the grip of violence for the past sixty years–a cocaine-fueled conflict between the government, right-wing paramilitaries and various left-wing rebel groups, chief among them the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)–between 6,000 and 14,000 children serve either with guerrillas or with the government’s paramilitary forces. Forty percent of slain guerrillas in the country are under 18. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam in Sri Lanka–a group that has been fighting for independence for the country’s Tamil population for more than twenty-five years–is infamous for its “Baby Brigade,” a wing of the movement that recruits, trains and arms children as young as 11. In Afghanistan, it is estimated that 30 percent of children have participated in military activity at some point in their lives. In fact, the first American casualty of George Bush’s “war on terror,” Special Forces Sgt. Nathan Chapman, was shot dead by a 14-year-old Afghan boy fighting with the Taliban.