One of the first things that got me interested in Africa and its people was my contact with a Nigerian priest sent to the Archdiocese of Chicago. My parents befriended him soon after he arrived, and he has been a fixture in my life ever since.
He is a remarkable man; full of life and song, overflowing with love, energy and personality. Looking into his face at any moment, you would see joy and a genuine enthusiasm for your own company. In every way, he radiates a remarkable and infectious spirit.
What you would not see from looking at him, or ever guess from his demeanor or conversation, is that he was a child soldier. I do not want to divulge details, but they are really unnecessary save for one important fact: his time as a soldier ended.
He is one of the lucky ones who have been able (through the assistance of, in his case, the Catholic Church) to recover from the psychological abuse they suffered at the hands of the armies who trained them. Many others die before reaching adulthood, or are so twisted by the drugs and brainwashing they endure that even when released from the army they are unable to function in society.
Their numbers are rising. A recent map compiled by PBS highlights 18 countries where child soldiers have served, and UNICEF places their numbers at around 10% of the total number of combatants worldwide (some 300,000.) Children are attractive recruits for a variety of reasons, but primarily because they are cheap to feed and easily manipulated. Many of the armies who use child soldiers target civilians, and it is more expensive and more difficult to motivate an adult to kill innocent people than it is to brainwash or drug a child to do the same. In some cases, the targets of such warfare become the next wave of combatants -- when a unit of these soldiers arrives in a village their orders are often to kill/rape all the adults and abduct the children to be trained as soldiers.
The brainwashing begins immediately. If a child refuses to join willingly, the army kills his/her brother or sister, mother or father, or uses mutilation and torture to show them the futility of resisting. Once at the camp, they are fed a combination of drugs to dull their senses, confuse and energize them. One former child soldier referred to the combination of cocaine, alcohol and marijuana he took before a raid as a "morale booster."
Sexual abuse is common and widespread. Girls as young as 13 or 14 are openly used by the adult officers and the children that inevitably result are used to carry ammunition, run errands or test landmines before being added to the army when they are old enough. Boys are abused as well, either by being raped themselves or by being forced to rape others. Those who refuse or try to escape are killed or tortured.
The pain and trauma do not end when the war ends, either. Child soldiers remember many of the brutal acts they were forced to commit, they have nightmares and anxiety about the things they did or that were done to them. They can rarely go home; people remember what they did as soldiers and can neither trust nor forgive them. They are not usually seen as victims of war, though that is exactly what they are. Even those with families still living usually face ostracism, especially the girls who have been raped and borne children. The psychological damage is difficult to repair, and former child soldiers still feel violent tendencies and irrational hatred for groups or ethnicities they were trained to eliminate. Most of them are significantly behind in their schooling and have no social skills or ability to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. Rehabilitation and retraining are essential.
While the UN has established prohibitions against the use of child soldiers (anyone under 18) enforcement is sorely lacking. Rehabilitation programs are severely underfunded. What is needed most is a greater recognition of the problem and a concerted effort to support those organizations working to end/repair the practice of children as soldiers. This interview discusses the essential role religious NGOs play in the reintegration of former child soldiers back into normal life. To put it simply, governmental organizations can only do so much, and are often only given money on a temporary or emergency basis. The long-term job of working with communities to allow former child soldiers back into society is mostly done by religious organizations with a continued presence in the area. We must support them.
Christ came to us as a little child, called the children to Himself and told us all, "Unless you are like these little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Here at Christmastime, when we celebrate the miracle of God With Us, let us pray for those children who have been warped by war, their innocence and trust stripped away, their childlike energies used to commit terrible crimes. Let us pray for hope and healing, for forgiveness and reconciliation amongst all the victims of these crimes.
The following organizations* work to eliminate the use of child soldiers:
Child Soldier Relief
Global Youth Partnership for Africa
Human Rights Watch
International Red Cross and Red Crescent
International Rescue Committee
War Child International
For futher reading, please try:
Children at War
A Long Way Gone
First, Kill Your Family
* This is probably a subject for another post, but I want to briefly address it here. It is my belief (guided by the precepts of my faith) that many charitable organizations are misguided on certain issues (abortion, contraception, religious freedom and/or sexual orientation, to name a few.) I know many people of good conscience who refrain from assisting such associations monetarily. I respect this but do not agree. I think the battle against those things we disagree with must be waged actively and vocally, but not at the expense of the good and important work these organizations are also doing. The exception to this is when the organization is DIRECTLY harming the very population I am giving them money to help. When I learned, for instance, that the IRC provides abortions as part of its "health services" to victims of rape in the Congo, I stopped sending them money to help rape victims. I would, however, provide them money for refugee camps (unless I found out they perform abortions there, too.)
Charitable organizations are bound by law to appropriate money only to those programs the donor indicates. An open check sent to the Red Cross can be used for anything, but one which says specifically that the donor intends it for flood relief can then ONLY be used for flood relief. I take advantage of this to ensure that my money does not support things I do not believe in, even if the larger organization itself supports such things.
For Catholics who wish to ensure none of their contributions are spent on activities that conflict with the principles of our faith, I recommend Catholic Relief Services, which is present in nearly every country in the world and has a widespread mission of providing material and spiritual assistance to every person in need.
I also want to note: if I provide a direct link to an organization on this site, that indicates it has been personally vetted and I have not found any evidence that it either provides abortions or is funded/managed by an organization who does.