The Perfect Weapon – A Four Foot Fighter

In the Early 1980’s, in the lowlands of Mozambique, a new technology of warfare raised its head sweeping across Africa and soon to be the rest of the world – The child soldier.

Rebel Commanders had constructed a four-foot killing-machine that cut its way through village after village nearly overrunning the government. Its trail? Smoking huts, sawed off ears, women, children, their fathers, husbands, massacred – never to take another breath.

The Mozambiquians learned that children were the perfect weapon: Easily manipulated, fearless, intensely loyal and, as cynical as it is, they need less food than an adult fighter. Also, when conflicts drag on, children are used to maintain high numbers of fighters even after heavy casualties. “Children are more vulnerable, not fully matured and not independent decision makers. They are effectively easier to train and to brutalise and force into a very violent life,” explains Amnesty’s Sarah Greene. “It’s not about proper enrolment and pay. It’s just about force.”

In one country after another, conflicts have morphed from idea, or cause-driven struggle, to war lord-led drives whose essential goal is depredation.

Because those new rebel movements are motivated and financed by crime, popular support becomes irrelevant. Those in control do not care about hearts and minds. They see the local population as prey.

Today, Human Rights groups say that there are over 300,000 child soldiers world-wide. And experts say the problem is deepening as the nature of conflict itself changes – especially in Africa. Many children have suffered greatly in the last decade, with experts suggesting that during the long civil war and ensuring rebel riots in Liberia between 1989-1995, more than 21,000 children took part in the fighting.

In neighbouring Sierra Leone, where the 11 year conflict was only settled in 1999, many minors were forced to witness and take part in horrible crimes against civilians, including amputations, rape, beheadings and burning people alive. Over 7,000 children served as soldiers in Sierra Leone.

Children are heavily drugged in order to keep them detached, fearless and brutal. “I was doing all this not with myself but with the ‘morale booster’ that I took before leaving for the battlefield.” A former child soldier told The International Education and Resource Network (iEARN)  in Sierra Leone. This ‘morale booster’ includes cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. Another ex-soldier stated “I was injected with cocaine and then given an AK-47 rifle to carry. I started going to front lines killing people, raping and doing all sorts of bad things.”

Girl soldiers are frequently forced to provide sexual services as well as to fight. “I don’t know how many people had sex with me,” said Fabienne to Amnesty, who was 13 when she was abducted from her home in Burundi. “A man would come, then another and another. You couldn’t refuse… they said they’d kill you if you ran away.” Especially in Angola, Sierra Leone and Uganda, it is commonplace that rebel leaders sexually abuse young girls and force them to become their ‘wives’. According to Human Rights Watch, girl soldiers in northern Uganda have been known to have had babies by rebel commanders, only to be forced to strap them to their backs and continue fighting against National Security forces.

In many armed movements, children are taught that life and death depend on spirits, which are conjured up by the commanders and distilled in oils and amulets. Magic can spur good children to do unspeakable things. It also bestows otherwise lacklustre leaders with a veneer of supernatural respectability. “The commanders would wear certain pearls and said that guns wouldn’t hurt us,” an ex-child soldier recalled to the BBC, “And we believed it.”

Renamo, the South African – backed rebel army that terrorised Mozambique in the 1980’s as it tried to destabilise the Marxist government, was among the first to turn to magic. It carried out a special role for witch doctors, whom the Marxists had marginalised.

By the time groups in Congo took that technique to its lowest depths in the late 1990’s, some child soldiers were instructed that eating their victims remains would make them stronger – The world started paying attention.

To help children escape this fate, international government programmes designed to disarm and rehabilitate ex-soldiers have been set up in Mozambique, Angola, Somalia and fairly recently in Sierra Leone. However, this process is complex and long-term, and does not stop the flow of children into armed groups.

In an effort to prevent this continuing recruitment, using child fighters has been outlawed by international law and by the newly established International Criminal Court (ICC.) The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child also has an important protocol which prohibits the use of children under the age of 18 in armed forces. Some countries, however, have opted out of that protocol.

Britain is one of them.

“When discussing child soldiers, it is important to note that Britain still uses under 18’s in the armed forces, which it’s not supposed to do,” Amnesty International tells The Situation. “By opting out of the protocol prohibiting the use of child soldiers, we’re not setting the right example. Britain is unusual in having done that.”

What will the future bring for the thousands of child soldiers of today? How will they grow up? And what happens to a country with an adult population of psychologically traumatised ex-soldiers? One thing however, is certain – no child will have a healthy childhood carrying an AK-47, especially when true to form, their leader has told them that he rolled to earth in a ball of stars.

Samantha McLean


3 Responses

  1. Samantha this is an excellent piece. I found myself feeling very uncomfortable while reading parts of this and it has heightened my awareness of the brutality of using these children to fight and the horrific reality of what they have to do. Really well done.

  2. You only have to watch the movie Blood Diamond to see how shocking this topic is. Brutal but true. Excellent idea for a blog Samantha, and very well written.

  3. I commend you Samantha for informing us on a horrendous worldwide issue that, unfortunately, looks set to remain a problem for years to come. Very well written and thoroughly informative.

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