The East African (Nairobi)

18 September 2007

Africa: Child Soldiers Not a Lost Generation

opinion

Nairobi — CHILD SOLDIERS ARE NOT A LOST generation and do not all pride themselves in killing and violence, Michael Wessells, senior child protection officer at the Christian Children's Fund and professor at Columbia University, says during the briefing at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington DC.

They do, however, have problems with adjustment, and this is where reintegration programmes should focus their efforts.

According to one longitudinal life-outcomes study conducted by Neil Boothby in Mozambique and funded in part by the United States Institute of Peace, the majority of child soldiers are not "damaged goods."

For children who say that they cannot sleep because they are haunted by the spirits of those they have killed, sometimes the best approach is a ritual of spiritual cleansing performed by a local healer.

Whereas Western psychologists might diagnose these children as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Mr Wessells says that such diagnoses carry little weight within the communities where he has worked with returned child soldiers. Community-based strategies are more effective in the reintegration of these children than approaches that are rooted in Western clinical psychology.

There are some child soldiers who return to their communities without going through any reintegration programme at all (this is sometimes called "spontaneous" reintegration), and there is little research to understand how these children are able to integrate on their own without any formal support.

Moreover, despite the prevalence of the discourse on trauma and PTSD, fewer than 10 per cent of people who have a life-threatening experience actually develop full-blown PTSD.

A parallel storyline to the dominant discourses of trauma, Mr Wessells says, is the story of resilience, coping, and adaptation. While there needs to be a balance between the emphasis on the two stories, Mr Wessells says that a child's capacity to adapt is often remarkable.

Too often, adult protection specialists and donors impose programmes without first trying to understand what the children think about their own situation and what they believe they need.

A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate. Mr Wessells recounts a story from Angola, where the general belief among almost all child protection officers was that there were no girl soldiers involved in the decades of fighting there.

But a joint research project by Unicef and Christian Children's Fund found that, in fact, an estimated 10,000 girls were used as child soldiers, though none had participated in the formal demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration programmes.

These girls had preferred to remain invisible rather than be identified as participants in the armed forces.

Mr Wessells says the tension and stress of day to day life often outweigh the residue of whatever trauma a young person may have experienced during their time with the armed groups.

HE TELLS THE STORY OF a girl from Sierra Leone who was abducted by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) at 12 years old, forced to be a soldier's "wife," had a child, became HIV positive, and passed on HIV to her child.

The struggle that the young woman faced upon her attempted reintegration into the community was, in her own words, far more stressful than her attempts to "cope" with what she had experienced in the bush. The stresses of daily life took precedents.

He suggests that reintegration programmes build upon the unique knowledge base and survival strategies that children develop while they were involved with an armed group.

Former child soldiers who were organisers, leaders or recruiters or held other active roles apart from the violence, will possess a highly developed sense of agency and social power.

If reintegration programmes ignore this, they diminish the skills that the children already hold.

Chris Blattman, co-founder of the Survey of War Affected Youth, suggests that 2006/07 was the year in which the child soldier became an American pop icon.

"We saw many more editorials and more significant news coverage of child soldiers than ever before, one of the most critically acclaimed books of the year was a novel about a child soldier (What is the What by Dave Eggers) and you can now buy Ishmael Beah's book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier at your local Starbucks.

"Iconic symbols of child soldiers have emerged both in the news media and advocacy circles: the drug-crazed teenager who wields an AK-47 and believes he has magical immunity from bullets; an emphasis on the youngest of the young who are conscripted into armed forces; and the manic, barbaric rebel leader." he says.

MR BLATTMAN SAYS That the assumption that they are a "lost generation" pervades the community that works with former child soldiers. "It is not clear, however, what is the rule and what is the exception.

"There are certainly many children who had terrible experiences and were deeply harmed during their time with an armed group, but this does not mean we should categorise all child soldiers as belonging to a 'lost generation,' he says.

Indeed, his research in northern Uganda demonstrated that traumatisation was not the norm, but rather that resilience was the norm.

In Uganda, a large number of about 66,000 youth abducted into the Lord's Resistance Army either escaped or were released within weeks, says Mr Blattman.

Some returned child soldiers even assumed significant, positive leadership roles within their communities after reintegration.

One significant obstacle, however, is the low level of literacy among the older ex-combatants.

Betty Bigombe, former chief mediator in the northern Uganda conflict, says that almost all of the demobilised child soldiers she met in Uganda said that they wanted to go back to school - that was their first wish for themselves.

She visited several schools in northern Uganda and saw that there were high dropout rates and frequent repetition of grade levels for the returned child soldiers.

She suggests that this is often due to teachers not knowing how to deal with the behaviour or attitude of former child soldiers in the classroom. If a student acts out, the first impulse is to expel him/her.

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