Uganda's Lost Girls
Former girls soldiers in Northern Uganda still face tremendous problems. We can help them.
The principal emotion we – as outside observers – should feel about child soldiers is sadness at their exploitation. Horror? Perhaps. But sadness most of all. Increasingly often children, girls just as often as boys, seem to be the actors in and principal victims of armed conflict in the 'asymmetrical wars' that dominate our television screens.
Yet what is a child? Few cultures understand UNICEF's legal guideline that defines 18 as the end of 'childhood': in most countries 16-year-olds, even 14-year-olds can be seen working to feed their families. Pashtun boys in Afghanistan and Pakistan traditionally receive a knife at age seven when they join their fathers in the fields, and a gun at age 14 to defend their families' honour. Yet on our television screens we see much younger children carrying weapons, taking drugs, and being sent by guerrilla leaders to fight on the frontlines because they are fearless and expendable.
Poverty, over-population and a lack of opportunities are major reasons for the widespread recruitment of children as soldiers. The tools of armed conflict – firearms and young unemployed men – are so readily available that it is easy to start a war; especially when the vast arsenals supplied by Western governments to places like Libya and Afghanistan are suddenly on the open market. Youths sign up to fight because they have no alternative source of livelihood. Sometimes they do not even sign up for the war they end up fighting: plenty of Arab youths were shipped in to fight the government of Syria. Many returned home when they discovered they had been tricked and were not in fact fighting the Israelis.
During the week of 14 March 2013, the French news channel, France 24, repeatedly showed the arrest of a 14-year-old boy lying in a narrow crevasse with his Kalashnikov among the sun-baked black rocks of the Adrar Mountains in northern Mali, described by the French Foreign Legion as 'Planète Mars' except that the fighting takes place in 45 degrees Celsius. Who brought this 14-year-old child with a gun to Mali? Since he understood no French, he was probably imported from Nigeria to fight a jihad. Does he even know what that means?
His father in Northern Nigeria was no doubt glad to receive some money and the promise of an Islamic 'education' for his son. He probably never imagined that his child would be sent to fight someone else's war in a foreign desert, commanded by fanatical Pakistanis and Mauritanians under a criminal band of Algerian renegades whose interest is not 'Islam' but the pursuit of their cocaine smuggling and kidnapping activities. Ah yes, they have recently begun calling themselves 'Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb'. But I can promise you, Monsieur Mokhtar Benmoktar – nicknamed 'Marlboro' after the smuggled cigarettes that made your first fortune – that your new AQIM name does not fool us!
Children are the principal victims of these criminal mafias in Asia and Africa. We met many such children in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the horrors of child soldiering made world headlines during the 1990s. We interviewed one of these child soldiers, Abdul Rahim Kamara, on 22 April 2007 after he had testified in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
"I was working with my father on our farm when we saw some people coming towards us with guns and sticks. The leader of the group fired shots into the air and warned that we would be shot if we attempted to escape. My father started crying and begging them to leave us (his children) alone, but the leader slapped him and ordered his boys to tie him to a tree. We were made to join the other people and we walked for several days in the bush before reaching their camp.
"We were woken up one morning and branded with a hot knife on our shoulders with the letters R.U.F. I cried for a while and was surprised to see the other children with guns laughing at us. With the brand on us we were only safe with the group, as government soldiers were killing all those they saw with the brand.
"The next day, we were taught how to shoot and while we were on the exercise, the commander Brigadier Cold Blood came, provided us with marijuana, and told us that this was the cigarette that makes people see what ordinary men cannot see. From then on we were injected every day for a week with a substance that made us go crazy."
Kamara described some of the atrocities he was forced to commit to the TRC: some because of the drugs, others out of fear or from the feeling of power that comes from being young and armed with a Kalashnikov. "I did several horrible things I am sorry about, but they made me do it – I could never have done that on my own. I will never hurt anybody again in my life. I was merely a victim of circumstance. Now I hate myself so much, and I do not know what to do to be a happy and normal person once again."
"Now I hate myself so much, and I do not know what to do to be a happy and normal person once again."
Abdul Rahim Kamara was taken back by his village, and cleansed of his sins by the elders of the Poro Secret Society. He described how he was "taken to the Poro bush and a certain powder was rubbed on us and later taken to a river where we were washed with 'black soap' and told that once again we are protected by the spirit of our forefathers. I felt a heavy weight come off me. I was always afraid that my people were no longer going to accept me, but the elders in the Poro Society made it their duty to rid us of evil."
Communal cleansing is often more powerful (and more affordable and acceptable) than western 'psychotherapy' that focuses on the individual. Sierra Leone is one of the countries in which girls were also drugged and used as fighters. Some were horrifically vicious. More often, girls are exploited as cooks, ammunition carriers, and sex slaves. Mabinty was one such girl we interviewed. She had been captured at the age of nine. "The commander of the group that captured my brother and I took pity on me, and he made me stay with him to help cook his food and wash his uniform. Unfortunately, one day he went to fight and got killed in an ambush. I cried the whole day not knowing what my fate was going to be. The new commander came and told me that they needed more fighters so I would fight. I was transferred to the section where children were trained and I saw my brother again. However, he had completely changed. He could only remember me periodically and when I tried going close to him, he slapped me.
"I was trained to fight alongside some new recruits and we were injected with a special medicine when they sent us into our first battle. I felt sick for a while but became very wild after. I ceased to be the person I was; I started behaving like a mad person. During my stay in the RUF, I fought, killed people, got raped, and got shot once, but survived it all."
The Lord's Resistance Army in Northern Uganda is horribly notorious for its abuse of girls, sometimes carrying whole dormitories of teenage girls off into the bush. 'Stockholm Syndrome' works well on children: ripped from their families, they quickly become dependent on their jailers (their gang leaders) – and for girls this effect is often reinforced by sexual dependency and children. Once a girl has borne a fighter's baby in the bush, has she not become his 'wife'? While this forced domesticity has sometimes helped with the post-conflict reintegration of fighters and their 'wives', the tragic result for the girls is a lifelong dependency on the perpetrators of violence. But that relationship is often all they have left.
'Stockholm Syndrome' works well on children: ripped from their families, they quickly become dependent on their jailers.
After conflict comes disarmament. Instead of the misleading DDR shorthand (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration), we use the expression 3D4R or RDRDRDR, which better translates the real complexities of the reintegration process by insisting on planning the R before the D has begun. We describe the process as reintegration, disarmament, reconciliation, demobilisation, reinsertion, destruction of weapons, and rehabilitation of the economy. Sometimes you need to add context-specific R-factors like resettlement of refugees, retraining youth, remembering the handicapped and recuperating girls who have been victims of sexual abuse. The vulnerable are too often forgotten in traditional DDR designs.
The vulnerable include young women. DDR programmes are usually run by soldiers, for whom dismantling a rifle seems a natural test of whether or not a girl has been a 'child soldier'. This is a good example of social bias against women: we consider a girl whose life has been taken by war and a rebel commander as much an ex-combatant and victim as any boy with rifle skills. 3D4R needs to be run by civilians as well as soldiers, and involving civilian women would be ideal – for it is the girls who are most often forgotten in the discussion of child soldiers.