Children's Rights

Easy Targets: Violence Against Children Worldwide

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Armed Conflict

Child Casualties of War

As my mother and I tried to run out of the house we saw about eight Kamajors [civil defense forces]. Most had guns and a few had machetes. My mother dashed down the verandah but they caught her and then shot her. She fell about five meters from the house. By this time several of them had surrounded me. They ordered me to sit down and one held me tight by the head while the other cut my neck with his machete. I tried to protect my neck with my left hand but they slashed it. They said in the Kono language, “you'll be dead—all of you are RUF [Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group] wives.” After cutting me, I lay still, pretending to be dead. I was bleeding so much. After a while I heard them say, “she done die.” Then I crawled into the bush and hid until my family came to help me.[100]

- twelve-year-old girl, Sierra Leone

In conflict situations, children are the frequent targets of brutal, indiscriminate acts of violence. In an oft-repeated statistic, UNICEF estimates that during a recent ten-year period, two million children died as a direct result of armed conflict, and an additional six million were injured or disabled.

In Sierra Leone, children have been murdered, mutilated, tortured, beaten, raped, and enslaved for sexual purposes. Some of the atrocities committed by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) were unthinkable. Infants and children were thrown into burning houses, the hands of toddlers as young as two were severed with machetes, and girls as young as eight were sexually abused.[101]

A farmer in Sierra Leone told Human Rights Watch of a rebel attack against his wife and six children: “They shot my wife, killed two of the children, shot my seven-year old through the stomach, and cut another on the buttocks. Two got away.”[102] Dozens of similar cases were reported to Human Rights Watch.

Medical records from one hospital showed that out of 265 war wounded admitted during a three-month period in 1998, approximately one-quarter were children. During a nine-day period in February of that year, 111 children died during rebel attacks in the Bo area, according to reports from humanitarian agencies.[103]

Another Sierra Leonean farmer told Human Rights Watch of a July 11, 2001 attack by the RUF:

We tried to run but they caught five of us, including the children aged ten, five and about two. They tied us together at the waist and told us to start walking. One of the RUF was carrying the two-year-old. They said, “today some of you will die; you people are Kamajors.” As we walked the children were crying and slowing us down. The commander was complaining and about half an hour later, he ordered us to halt and then took his machete and started hitting us. First he hit me twice on the head and on my left arm, and then he started hitting the children one after the other. It was pathetic. The children were crying and begging but he killed them anyway.[104]

Rape and sexual assault of girls are common in armed conflicts. A newspaper reporter in Sierra Leone told Human Rights Watch. “There was rampant raping. I saw a fifteen-year-old girl raped right before me. They left her, but they captured others, and among them was a seven-year-old girl.”

Pro-government militias in Sierra Leone, like the Kamajors have also committed atrocities against civilians. Over twenty civilians were killed by militias, including nine children, in four attacks documented by Human Rights Watch in June and July 2001. Some nineteen more civilians, including eleven children, were wounded.

Child Soldiers

I remember the first time I was in the front line. The other side started firing, and the commander ordered us to run through the bullets. I panicked. I saw others falling down dead around me. The commanders were beating us for not running, for trying to crouch down. They said if we fall down, we would be shot and killed by the soldiers.

- Timothy A., fourteen, Uganda[105]

During the last five years, Human Rights Watch has documented the recruitment of children as soldiers in armed conflicts in Burma, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. The use of children as soldiers places their lives and well-being at great risk. They may use high-caliber weapons at the front lines of combat, lay explosives and serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions and commit atrocities. They may risk attack while carrying supplies or collecting intelligence. Apart from the inherent risks of combat, child soldiers are also frequently subjected to sexual abuse and other forms of brutal treatment by fellow soldiers or their commanders.

In Uganda, the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has abducted thousands of children to fight against the government of Uganda and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The rebels prefer children of fourteen to sixteen, but have also taken children as young as eight or nine. They tie the children to one another, and force them to carry heavy loads of looted goods as they march them off into the bush. Children who protect or resist are killed. Children who cannot keep up or become tired or ill are killed. Children who attempt to escape are killed.

Their deaths are not quick— a child killed by a single rebel bullet is rare. If a child attempts to escape, the rebels force the other abducted children to kill the would-be escapee, usually with clubs or machetes. Any child who refuses to participate in the killing may also be beaten or killed.

In 1997, Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of children who had escaped from the LRA. Fourteen-year-old Thomas C. told us:

I saw quite a number of children killed. Most of them were killed with clubs. They would take five or six of the newly abducted children and make them kill those who had fallen or tried to escape. It was so painful to watch. Twice I had to help. And to do it, it was so bad, it was very bad to have to do.[106]

Christine D., seventeen, described what happened to a boy that escaped:

They found him in his home, and called him outside. They made him lie down on the ground, and they pierced him with a bayonet. They chopped him with the bayonet until he was dead. Seeing this, at times, I felt like I was a dead person – not feeling anything. And then sometimes I would feel like it was happening to me, and I would feel the pain.[107]

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of children have been recruited by government forces, pro-government militias, and rebel forces. A 2001 Human Rights Watch report on the recruitment of children by the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma) found that children were beaten, ill-treated, and used as cannon-fodder. A former recruiter for the RCD-Goma told us:

They were trained on how to use arms and how to shoot, and that was the end of it. Some of the kids were even sent to battle without arms. . . .  They were ordered to make a lot of noise, using sticks on tree trunks and the like. When they succeeded in diverting the attention of government troops, that is to say when they drew government fire on their unarmed elements, these units, known as the Kadogo Commando, would be literally allowed to fall like flies under government fire. The experienced troops would then attack the government troops when their attention was diverted to the Kadogo Commando.[108]

Thousands of children have also been recruited by the Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Mouvement de Libération (RCD-ML) with the assistance of the Uganda army. In 2000, Human Rights Watch found that recruiters for the RCD-ML would routinely tour villages on recruitment missions lasting several days to a week.[109] Teams typically returned from these missions with a truckload of 100 to 200 children and youth, aged 13 to 18. Ugandan army instructors would then provide three to six months of infantry and weapons training at Nyaluke camp. According to one news agency, conditions at Nyaluke were deplorable: “living conditions are terrible, and many children die before completing the training, due to abuse and lack of health assistance.” [110]

In Burma, unknown thousands of children have been forcibly recruited by the Burmese Army. These children are used as porters, guards, and combatants. A 1996 Human Rights Watch report found that some porters were extrajudicially executed or accidentally killed, and all were subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. We interviewed one fifteen-year-old boy who was beaten when he could not carry his load. His father said he was lucky to be alive. Children used as guards are also beaten if they fell asleep during duty, or left their posts even briefly.

One former Burmese soldier told Human Rights Watch he was recruited at age fifteen. At the military training school where he was sent there were five hundred other recruits, none older than himself. He described the brutal and brutalizing treatment he and all the recruits experienced in this training camp, which included beatings, sleep deprivation, and starvation. Several boys who joined the army at age thirteen told us of being sent to front-line action after just one year of training – when they were still only fourteen years old.[111]

In Colombia, thousands of children have been recruited into guerrilla forces and pro-government, military backed paramilitaries. In late 2000, independent observers reported to Human Rights Watch that dozens of children were among the guerrillas registered as killed or captured after an encounter between government troops and the FARC-EP. The Colombian Army announced that thirty-two of those captured were aged seventeen or under, including several younger than fourteen, and a third were females. Of those killed, twenty were said by the army to be children.[112]

Thousands of children have been killed during the Colombian conflict. Children who escape the guerrillas are considered deserters and can be subjected to on-the-spot execution. If guerrillas believe a child has given information to the Colombian security forces, the punishment is death. Even children who have been captured by the authorities, convicted, and placed in juvenile detention centers are at risk of being killed. Between 1994 and 1996, the Public Advocate’s Office found, 13 percent of the children convicted of belonging to guerrilla groups and imprisoned were killed while in custody, apparently by other child guerrillas in the same facilities.[113]

The Colombian paramilitaries have recruited children as young as eight years old, and according to some estimates, up to fifty percent of some paramilitary units are made up of children. Girls are reportedly subjected to high levels of sexual abuse by adult members of the paramilitaries.

Refugee Children

Refugee children have not only suffered from war and been forced to flee from their homes, but many continue to suffer human rights abuses in countries of asylum. Even after traveling across an international border to seek refuge, they remain vulnerable to physical abuse, sexual violence and exploitation, and cross-border attacks.

Despite the obvious safety risks involved, families sometimes send children back into the land they fled to forage for food. Human Rights Watch interviewed Sierra Leonean refugee children in Guinea who encountered rebels while returning to search for food, resulting in abduction, mutilation, or even the murder of others with them.

In Guinean refugee camps, Human Rights Watch found that children who had been separated from their families were particularly vulnerable. Many were taken in by other refugees, who subjected the children to physical abuse. Many separated children told us that they were beaten by their caregivers on a regular basis; almost all of them said they had been beaten within the week prior to the interview. Children reported that they were usually beaten because they “waste time” or “make a mistake in the work.”

Bondu L, a twelve-year-old girl, told us that her caregiver beat her with a stick on her back two days before she spoke to Human Rights Watch because she “took too long” gathering firewood. “If I don’t work, she starves me. She also flogs me with a stick, over all parts of the body.”[114]

Refugee girls are vulnerable to rape, sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence. While investigating the conditions of Burundian refugees in Tanzanian refugee camps in 1998 and 1999, Human Rights Watch found that girls were subject to high levels of sexual abuse. A 1997 survey by the International Rescue Committee of 3,800 women and girls found that approximately 26 percent of girls and women in the twelve to forty-nine age range reported having been subjected to violence either during flight from Burundi or while in the camp. We found that girls were often attacked while carrying out routine daily tasks such as gathering firewood, collecting vegetables, farming, or seeking local employment.[115]

Human Rights Watch received a number of testimonies from girls who had been raped in or near the Tanzanian camps. Mary U., a fifteen-year-old girl, reported that she was raped by two Tanzanian villagers in April 1999 while in the forest gathering firewood with a female friend. Adelina R., sixteen, was raped in October 1999, while collecting firewood outside a camp, by a refugee she described as a fifteen-year-old boy. Marie-Claire E., sixteen, was raped by two men while traveling to visit her uncle with her younger brother. “The two men took off my clothes, in the presence of my brother. They blindfolded me and raped me, one after the other. I would like the assailants to be punished for raping me.” Although all three of these girls reported the rapes to the police, only one of the assailants was apprehended. He was released and subsequently fled.

[100] Human Rights Watch, Sierra Leone: Most Serious Attacks in Months, press release, July 24, 2001

[101] Human Rights Watch, Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation, and Rape: New Testimony from Sierra Leone (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), p. 50.

[102] Human Rights Watch, Sowing Terror: Atrocities against Civilians in Sierra Leone (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998), p. 17.

[103] Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Human Rights Watch, The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997), pp. 1-2.

[106] Human Rights Watch, Scars of Death, p. 15.

[107] Ibid., p. 19.

[108] Human Rights Watch, Reluctant Recruits: Children and Adults Forcibly Recruited for Military Service in North Kivu (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001), p. 11.

[109] Human Rights Watch, Uganda in Eastern DRC: Fueling Political and Ethnic Strife (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001).

[110] MISNA, “RCD-Butembo-Beni: Enfants soumis à l’exercise militaire au camp de Nyaleke,” January 13, 2000, cited in Human Rights Watch, Uganda in Eastern DRC, p. 25.

[111] Human Rights Watch, Burma: Children's Rights and the Rule of Law.

[112] Human Rights Watch Letter to Commander Manuel Marulanda, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP), July 10, 2001

[113] Human Rights Watch, War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998), p. 197.

[114] Human Rights Watch, Forgotten Children of War: Sierra Leonean Refugee Children in Guinea (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), p 28.

[115] Human Rights Watch, Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania’s Refugee Camps (New York, Human Rights Watch, 2000).

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