News 2008


Child-soldiers in the making?


10. March 2008

FRANCIS AYIEKO writes that counsellors are worried that children below 18 are becoming loyal to militia leaders - such as those of the proscribed Mungiki and Taliban - which are flourishing in the guise of self defence

FOR THE PAST TWO MONTHS, Mary Wanjiru, a counsellor, has heard children age 10-17 using the word adui (enemy) more times than any other word in her conversations with them.

Since the eruption of post-election violence in Kenya following the announcement of the December 27 presidential results, Wanjiru has been visiting various camps for internally displaced persons across the country to conduct counselling sessions to children.

Most children in the camps, she says, having witnessed death, destruction of property and fighting, are not only traumatised but also harbour bitter feelings towards the perpetrators of the acts.

The children use the word adui to refer to members of the community or communities believed to have visited terror on their families and friends.

Counsellors and conflict resolution experts now warn that unless the pent-up anger is urgently dealt with, such children may grow up to seek revenge. This, they say, could make them easy targets for recruitment by outlawed militias in the country.

Indeed, says Wanjiru children below 18 years are becoming loyal to militia leaders — such as those of the proscribed Mungiki and Taliban — which are flourishing under the guise of vigilantes

Pascal Cuttat, head of the International Red Cross delegation that visited Nairobi recently, said the fact that the violence took on an ethnic dimension was dangerous for children of impressionable age.

He said that many many countries where children have joined armed conflicts, it all began by them taking part in ethnic fighting. “Reconciliation efforts aimed at ensuring peaceful co-existence among the different communities in Kenya will not yield much if children are allowed to grow up with the bitterness and hatred resulting from the conflict,” said Mr Cuttat.

MS WANJIRU, A COUNSELLOR with Peace is the Way organisation, says children can be easily swayed by emotions of hatred and revenge.

“We could easily go the Sierra Leone way if nothing is done to nurture children’s weak and vulnerable emotions positively,” she added.

Ms Wanjiru, whose counselling sessions at different IDP camps across the country target children, says most children are bitter, traumatised and need guidance to overcome their bitterness.

“Right now, there is a vacuum in their hearts and whatever is allowed to fill it may determine whether their tomorrow will be violent or peaceful,” she says.

Counsellors from different organisations, fearing that the bitterness expressed by these minors could cause a serious social breakdown in the near future if not addressed, have stepped up their counselling in the IDP camps around the country.

“The danger is real. We’ve seen it but we are sure we can stop it,” says Ms Wanjiru. “In the IDP camps, counsellors get children to express their feelings in different ways. When they express it through art, they draw weapons of war such as arrows, machetes, stones, slings and others that they saw being used during the violence. When they speak, they talk of enemies. If we don’t deal with it now, we are sitting on a time bomb.”

Mary Mudimo, another a counsellor with Peace is the Way, who participated in the rehabilitation of Sudan’s child soldiers, says whenever serious conflicts such as the one witnessed in Kenya occur, armed groups recruit children because they are considered cheap labour and can be easily swayed or intimidated.

Ms Mudimo says that the feelings expressed by the children in the IDP camps through art, coupled with their shifting of loyalty to gang leaders, can be likened to the beating of drums of war.

“The cases of oath taking reported on TV and children expressing their feelings through drawing of weapons of war is like sounding a drum for future war,” she said, referring to a minor who was recently arrested among a group of young men taking an oath in Nairobi.

She appeals to counsellors wherever they are to volunteer their services to save Kenya from going the Sierra Leone.

The concerns raised by the counsellors are reinforced by a report titled Children in Conflict, recently carried by a magazine published by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which says that over 300,000 children have been recruited in 30 armed conflicts across the world.

It further says that any serious conflict in a country leaves the children open and vulnerable to all kinds of influence from guerilla groups and other armed movements.

The report says that children are also lured into war by loss of trust in adults who subject them to violence, and from feelings of disappointment with institutions that are supposed to protect them.

It quotes former South African first lady Graca Machel as saying that the physical, sexual and emotional violence that children go through in conflict situations shutters their world. “It erodes their faith in adults and they tend to believe that only when armed can they protect themselves,” the report quotes Machel as saying. Machel is involved in the Kenyan peace mediation efforts.

COUNTRIES THAT HAVE Experienced war such as Sierra Leone, the report says, had hundreds of children joining armed conflicts. Most of them were kidnapped while others joined voluntarily. The trend is the same in Southern Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad and Somalia.

The international red cross society (IRCS) and the Red Crescent Movement have jointly worked out a plan of action to protect children in conflict situations.

The charter was endorsed by the Council of Delegates of the two bodies in Geneva in 1995. It has played a major role in making recruitment of children to any armed force illegal.

Under the theme “Non-Recruitment and Non-Participation of Children Below Age 18 in Armed Conflict,” the plan recommended that national Red Cross societies implement the programmes with their respective governments to protect children from going to war and during war or any other armed conflict.

Though it is not clear whether Kenya is a signatory to this action plan, its recommendations don’t seem to be in application in the country. The plan mandates national Red Cross societies to partner with governments to run programmes in the media exposing the dangers of wars to children; train teachers on children’s rights and sign pacts with armed groups not to recruit children to their ranks in case of conflicts.

The plan seems to have been implemented only in countries that have experienced prolonged conflict. In Sierra Leone, for example, IRCS initiated a Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation centre to cater for children of ages 10-18. It trains children vulnerable to joining war as well as rehabilitate those who have already experienced war by endowing them with economic skills like tie-and-dye, soap making and tailoring among others.

Last year alone, 450 children joined the programme. The report quotes the centre’s Sierra Leone manager, Abu Bakar Sesay, as saying: “If the children are not helped, they will go to war.”

A similar programme also operates in Somalia, where the Unicef representative Christian Olsen is quoted in the report saying that they are working with the government to demobilise child soldiers and dissuading others from joining.

According to Unicef, because of their inability to defend themselves, two million children have been killed in armed conflicts in the past decade, six million have been left homeless, 12 million injured or maimed and 300,000 made soldiers through kidnapping, deceptions or intimidation.