“One boy tried to escape, but he was caught. They made him eat a mouthful of red pepper, and five people were beating him. His hands were tied, and then they made us, the other new captives, kill him with a stick. I felt sick. I knew this boy from before. We were from the same village. I refused to kill him, and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it. The boy was asking me, "Why are you doing this?" I said I had no choice. After we killed him, they made us smear his blood on our arms. I felt dizzy. There was another dead body nearby, and I could smell the body. I felt so sick. They said we had to do this so we would not fear death, and so we would not try to escape.” -Susan, 16 (Human Rights Watch)
My stomach knots up when I think about this. It is hard even to imagine this being real. Read Susan’s quote again and take it in. Sure, you can read the words…but really, who could do this to a child? What is even harder to take in is the fact that this is just a single account of abuse out of an estimated 300,000 children who probably have similar stories. These children are currently serving as combatants, labor bondsman, and sexual slaves in over 30 countries around the world today (Stohl).
Why children? The list of reasons is long. Child soldiers tend to be physically small, agile and fast, as well as less visible than adults. They are easily influenced and less likely to challenge the goals of their superiors. These children rarely demand a soldier’s wage and have significantly less need for food (and cannot speak up for themselves when they do need more food). When deployed against a civilized army that follows international laws against the use of child soldiers, they might cause an emotional and ethical dilemma for these soldiers, so rebel groups often use child soldiers as human shields and suicide bombers.
Due to a poor understanding of the effects of war and death, child soldiers tend to stay courageous at all times, even in situations which adult soldiers would consider hopeless. They easily fall victim to manipulation and brainwashing, as they haven’t yet developed their own personal moral codes or beliefs regarding wrong or right. But perhaps the most horrific reason why children are used is because they are often considered to be expendable, and thus are considered more suitable for dangerous tasks like mine clearing, spying and death sentence missions.
Yes, the brutal reality of slavery is alive and well in the world today. Most of us have heard that there are an estimated 27 million people trapped in one form of slavery or another, so we obviously have an epidemic to confront. But in doing so, let us not forget the 300,000+ child soldiers who are exposed, not just to a life of violence and murder, but to every form of human enslavement.
Human Rights Watch, The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Armys in Uganda, Human Rights Watch Report, 1997, http://www.hrw.org/reports97/uganda/1ra.htm
Stohl, Rachel, Child Soldiering is the Worst Form of Child Labor, Center for Defense Information, June 22, 2000 http://www.cdi.org/program/issue/document.cfm?DocumentID=582&IssueID=106&StartRow=11&ListRows=10&appendURL=&Orderby=DateLastUpdated&ProgramID=21&issueID=106