Of child soldiers and obscene systems

Reading time 9 min.
Hand of a child
Hand of a child in the north-eastern Central African Republic © Pierre Holtz

Or, it can be called a timely call to end the hypocrisy over child soldiers. I know my position would draw some fire even from close quarters who had been dealing with the issue of child soldiers. But, let the abscess be pricked and opened– young boys and girls should take part in wars especially in those wars that can possibly render their lives better. In other words, if they are old enough to die should they not be considered old enough to kill?

The hue and cry over the use of children in wars, that is to generally refer to those who are under 15, is currently made against those in the so called developing countries while some have even gone as far as arguing (mostly without basis) that African traditional society called for the use of children as warriors. Imagine a child carrying (let alone throwing) a spear!

Actually, the use of children in wars was very much practiced in the West. Tsar Nicholas I recruited by force Jewish children (called “cantonists”) as young as eight years old. In the battle of Waterloo, children were used and many died: They were called “powder monkeys” and carried gun powder and other military items. In the First World War, Baden Powell used minors as scouts and later modelled the Boy Scout movement after them. Many 13 year olds enlisted in the British Army to escape the numbing life as chimney sweepers, workers in the coal mines or in the dreary British industry. In the American Civil War, many children were used by both sides and bugler John Cook, who was 15, was among those decorated by the Army. The same happened in the Second World War— Hitler had his Hitler Youths and young Jewish boys fought in the Warsaw Ghetto and in the resistance against Nazism. Children were incarcerated and sometimes even killed by orders of courts. In 1642 Thomas Graunger of Plymouth was executed for a crime he committed when he was 16. In present day Iran, minors are hanged by the ayatollahs and the Mollahs of Afghanistan were also ruthless. Nowadays, many in America rile against the “lunacy of lenience” and want minors severely punished and many (it must be said mostly blacks and Latinos) are actually executed for crimes they allegedly committed as juveniles. In the face of vindictive States, the child is always a victim.

Children die, children get killed. If you are old enough to be killed why are you young enough not to kill? There is no logic to it. Modern society commits crimes against children. The sanctimonious reference to children losing their innocence in war is empty talk. Victimized at an early age, many of the world’s children are old enough before they reach puberty. They are victims of abuse of all sorts before they even reach puberty as the Vatican can adequately inform us. Early marriages are common in many countries. Children are labourers starting from an early age. Thousands of them are street children exposed to all kinds of suffering and abuses, the pain of which the constant sniffling of petrol and glue cannot sufficiently cover up. Of the 2 million deaths every year from dehydration and diarrhoea 95% of the victims are children under 5.

Thousands of children die daily from preventable diseases and from consequences of poverty. All over the world, at least 750 million people are malnourished and the majority are children as is the case now in the famine stricken Ethiopia where a heartless tyrant does take good care of his own three children. We can continue with the grim statistics of Europe and America spending 17 billion dollars on pets while the spending of 9 billion dollars for safe water and 13 billion for basic health and nutrition could save millions of lives, and effective investment in education and fair trade practices could lift 300 million people out of poverty by 2015. After all, life expectancy in most parts of the world is at 40 while it is 80 years in the West. So, what life are we really talking about?

The argument in favour of letting children take part in wars is not only derived from the need to have them fight for their own well being like the Jewish children of the Warsaw Ghetto or like the children of Soweto who fought against Apartheid (many school children were killed by the racists!). There are other arguments too. Children who become soldiers can be far away from their parents. Many a Western expert has told us that parents in the Third World are uneducated and resort to beatings and mistreatment of children: This is not entirely false by the way, and thus children can escape early marriages, brutal beatings and onerous work (especially in rural families) by going off to war. For once, they will be at the other end of the gun or will be the ones dealing the punishment like the child soldiers of Sierra Leone chopping off hands and arms. The other basic argument is that children have no life, no future to speak of. If they survive to reach puberty, they would still face horrible conditions and odds, starvation, abuse, sleeping on the streets, and can also be shot by trigger happy policemen from Rio to Addis Ababa. So why not go to war and have a fair chance of survival or die trying?

Not all children can be adopted by a Madonna or a Jolie. Mercenary as they are, our rulers cannot sell all the children to foreigners. Their blood thirsty, vampire nature demands that they keep the majority for their own savage oppression. On another level, if children do not go war what will all these Save the Children and Protect Children from Violence groups do? Thousands of employed Western youths would be out of work. Do imagine this in the present times of recession! Are African children expected to compound the economic problems facing Barack Obama, a kin, just because he has become American? If no children do the dying in different war fronts where would the charity business be?

Victor Hugo wrote: “the deepest misery, an opportunity for obscenity”. The system is obscene; it is responsible for the existence of the child soldiers. All the Bill Gates’ and Sarkozy talk about creative or responsible capitalism is, as they say, hogwash. It is a world where the pets matter more than the child. It is a system that needs “powder monkeys”, children to exploit, children to be blown up. Soweto and Intifada showed the result of the injustice. In Ethiopia, thousands of minors were killed by the previous regime and the present one came to power by using child soldiers, both male and female. The road to power and riches is built over young and frail corpses. The obscenity of the system is such that innocent children are exposed to death every second (2000 children are infected by AIDS every day) and millions are already AIDS orphans.

Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, is 15 but considered old enough to suffer Guantanamo. Old enough for the pain? Old enough to inflict it too. That is how we see the hypocrisy over child soldiers. In Sierra Leone, the government also used child soldiers and chopped off hands and heads of its enemies. Children were not spared this way or that. The movements using children, from Renamo of Mozambique to the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony have found out that it pays — Renamo shares power and Kony is being prepared for that. Who cares for children when children killers come to power?

Not that stories recounted by “we were child soldiers”(“as told to someone” from the West in most cases) sound true. One Eritrean woman whose tale has been made into a film wrote of carrying an AK-47 at the age of six in rebel ranks and those who have little inkling of the size of a six year old female child’s hands and arms and the weight of a loaded Russian or Bulgarian Kalashnikov did believe her. Sierra Leone and Southern Sudanese “child soldiers” have also come out with tales that made them stare down ferocious lions where no lion roamed. No matter, the story, as Blair would have said, has to be “sexed up”. The Western media and the NGOs need that.

This said, the tragedy of the situation is not to be taken lightly. Ethiopians who do know much about dying say: “may God make my death nice and beautiful”; rather than (to) die in cold streets hungry and diseased it may be better to die with guns blazing and the staccato of machine gun fire accompanying their last breaths. I will not pretend to know the feelings of child soldiers in the face of death — I am no Bernard Henry Levy, the French philo-media man, who wrote in detail about Daniel Pearl’s last thoughts before being killed by fanatics. Yet, I do know that the life of our children who live under the brutal systems is no life at all.

Who am I to tell them not to be soldiers? After all, the civilized West worships its armed forces and soldiers. The obscene part of it all is that children are exposed to suffering and death in the first place and not that they die lying under stinking bridges or shot by criminal policemen in a dilapidated City or in a fire fight. Death is death and the child soldier is but a victim of the obscene system imposed on us by greedy child killers who will never admit to their crime.

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
Hama Tuma
Hama Tuma, Ethiopian author, poet and journalist, has been active in the political and human rights struggle in Ethiopia and Africa since the sixties. His satirical essays under the general title of African Absurdities have gained support from many quarters. Some of his books (English and Amharic) have been translated to French, Italian and Hebrew.
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