Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Toys do not always come in a fancy gift wrap: Children of the World, Part B

I am holding a book in my hands by Ishmael Beah, a young Sierra Leonese who currently resides in New York City. If the name of the 26-year old does not sound familiar to you, there is nothing wrong; he is not to be found among the annals of African literature and story-telling tradition along with Soyinka, Achebe or Gordimer, but this makes his book no less important. In fact, it is precisely the hitherto "anonymity" of its author what is the defining element of the book: "A long way gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" is the story of Beah, a child-soldier in the Sierra Leone Civil War, one of many. Beah's memoir is truly the "voice" of many anonymous child-soldiers from Sierra Leone and abroad who have been trapped in bloody conflicts. It is the book of Beah's brother, Junior, who disappeared one fine day and was never to be seen again, it is the book of his classmates, of his friends, it is the book of other youngsters who could be in his position writing the book, but, sadly, did not "live to tell the tale" [to use the title of Garcia-Marquez's recent novel].

Like flies trapped in a spider web, the children caught by guerrillas (or the government army) are virtually at the mercy of their captors. And yet unlike flies, their death will not be quick and (presumably) painless but, instead, long and brutal. They surrender body and soul, agency and childhood. They get in return the only toy they are allowed to have: a gun boxed in instructions about killing and killing and obeying the superiors. This is because the voracious appetite of the leaders will not be satiated unless the children mutate into obedient recruits capable of satisfying any cause that appears "worthy" to the leaders. Generalized as this description may be, it resonates with the testimonies of several child-soldiers from different countries, Sierra Leone being just one example. A notorious case involves the now-indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) guerrila leader Joseph Kony of Uganda whose group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), has abducted some 20,000 children.

Whether it fits the definition of child labor or not, the truth remains that the brutality and exploitation of children-converted-into-soldiers in combat zones and conflicts is repugnant and intolerable. The "institution" of child-soldiers consists, naturally so, an outright violation of the essence of the major human rights texts like the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (1948) or the "Convention on the Rigths of Children" (1989)- in fact, it is safe to argue that captors of child-soldiers nullify the very notion of human rights, let alone of children rights. Conversely, it needs not be repeated how damaging participating to wars is to children; what must be mentioned though is that even the children that manage somehow to escape or are rescued by the international community even at an early stage -like Ishmael Beah who was saved by UNICEF- need to undergo tremendous treatments in order to recover, to heal and to come in terms with their past.

The 11-year conflict that tore apart Sierra Leone erupted in 1991 with the first expedition of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a guerrila group who wanted to oust the All People's Congress (APC) government. The conflict ended in 2002, leaving thousands dead and an estimated 2 million people displaced. Statistics of the children-soldiers are harder to tabulate and largely do not make headlines during and even after the conflict ends. However child-soldiers are a distinct reality of warfare today, particularly in Africa, notably in Uganda, DR Congo and Angola, but elsewhere too, as in Colombia and Lebanon. According to Amnesty International some 300,000 children soldiers -close to the population of such capitals as Ljubljana, Slovenia or Canberra, Australia- fight in conflicts today. On the legislation front, progess has been achieved by the entry into force of the "Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Children on the involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts" in 2002 although sadly not all countries that are party to it have ratified it. Against the distressing reality and in lieu of any conclusion, I have decided to quote from Amnesty International's website a 15-year old girl, a former child-soldier of Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda - she tells: "I would like to give you a message. Please do your best to tell the world what is happening to us, the children. So that other children don't have to pass through this violence."

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Reference: Child Soldiers, Amnesty International

1 comment:

Claudia said...

thanks for stopping by my blog! i didn't know you had one so I started perusing your posts (although I of course, should be doing homework instead). Ishmael came to speak on our campus in April, as part of the Child RIghts Conference I organized. We started a Columbia-wide Child Rights Working Group last Spring and are hoping to raise awareness on campus and beyond, as well as adding more courses on child rights to the Columbia curriculum.
Anyway, nice to hear from you! :)

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