A new report on child soldiers in Africa has found that more than 120,000 children under 18 years of age are being used as soldiers across the continent. Some of these children are no more than 7 years of age.
The report, released by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, said the countries most affected were Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda.
"African children are being targeted across the continent as tools of war," said Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, which chairs the international coalition. He called upon governments to stop recruiting children into their own armed forces and to end all support to rebel groups that used children as soldiers.
"This research should provoke outrage from civil society and governments like," said Iain Levine, UN representative for Amnesty International at a press conference today at the United Nations. "We hope it will compel action to end this horrific problem."
Children are often recruited by government armed forces as a matter of course. Some children do volunteer to join the armed forces, but tens of thousands of children are forced to join up, sometimes at gunpoint. In Angola, forced recruitment of youth ("Rusgas") continues in some of the suburbs around the capital and throughout the country, especially in rural areas. Some reports suggest that military commanders have paid police officers to find new recruits. In Uganda, street children have been forced to join the army in order to be sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Girls too are used as soldiers, though generally in much smaller numbers. Concy A., a 14-year old girl, was abducted from Kitgum in Uganda and taken to Sudan by the armed opposition group, the Lord's Resistance Army. "In Sudan we were distributed to men and I was given to a man who had just killed his woman," Concy recounted to one interviewer. "I was not given a gun, but I helped in the abductions and grabbing of food from villagers. Girls who refused to become LRA wives were killed in front of us to serve as a warning to the rest of us."
Child soldiers have all too frequently committed atrocities. In Algeria, a young woman from one of the villages where massacres had taken place said that all of the killers were boys under 17. She said some boys who looked to be around 12 decapitated a 15-year-old girl and played 'catch' with the head.
Government-sponsored militia forces pose particular problems. In Burundi, in addition to widespread recruitment into regular armed forces, Tutsi armed groups, made up of youth aged from 12 to 25, have been formed with the encouragement of government authorities. Government militias in Congo-Brazzaville, which have been widely credited with widespread human rights abuses, include many teenage children among their ranks.
Many of the worst abuses have been committed by armed opposition groups. The Hutu opposition in Burundi has systematically recruited boys and girls under 15 years of age into its armed groups. In Sierra Leone, rebel forces have systematically recruited children, some as young as 7 years of age. In Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) abducts children from their schools, communities and homes. Children are killed if they attempt to escape or resist, or if they cannot keep up, or become ill. If they do manage to escape, they must then face the wrath of the government. In January 1999, the Ugandan army executed, in circumstances still to be clarified, five teenage boys between the ages of 14 and 17 suspected of being rebel soldiers.
When not actively engaged in combat, children are often used to man checkpoints. Adult soldiers tend to stand several metres further back so that if bullets start flying, the children will be the first victims. And in any conflict where even a few children are involved as soldiers, all children, civilian or combatant, come under suspicion. A recent military sweep in Congo-Brazzaville, for instance, killed all rebels who had attained the 'age of bearing arms'.
The report, which is being published to coincide with the opening in Maputo, Mozambique of a Regional Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers, includes the best information to date on national recruitment legislation and practice and, in situations of armed conflict, child participation in armed conflict.
The overwhelming majority of African countries have set 18 years as the minimum age for recruitment, whether voluntary or through conscription. Notable exceptions are Angola, which recently reduced its conscription age to 17, and Uganda, which appears to allow children over 13 years of age to enlist in certain circumstances. South Africa, which currently accepts volunteers at 17 years, plans to raise its minimum recruitment age to 18 years in the coming months.
The Conference, which is being organized jointly by the Coalition and Save the Children, a non-governmental organization, is the first of four regional conferences to be held this year. The others will be held in Latin America, Asia and Europe. The Maputo Conference will bring together the largest-ever gathering of African governments, non-governmental organizations, and representatives of the United Nations and the Red Cross to seek to end the use of children as soldiers. The Coalition, which is headed by seven international non-governmental organizations, was formed in May 1998. It is spearheading campaigns against the use of child soldiers in more than twenty countries around the world.