Child-soldiers in the making?
THE EAST AFRICAN
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
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
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
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
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
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.