The most reprehensible aspect of low intensity conflicts such as insurgencies, irregular warfare and terrorism is also one of the least known—the use of children as soldiers.

Civilized societies—as also civilized readers—would cringe at the thought of children as young as eight years being used as full-fledged combatants. Yet this scourge is perpetuated by several “revolutionaries", terrorist organizations and, sadly, even some states. As Romeo Dallaire, a former Canadian peacekeeper with experience in Africa, points out, a child soldier is the ultimate end-to-end weapon system in the inventory of war machines, proven by its use in scores of conflicts all over the world.

Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

Villages in Rwanda, Congo, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and several other countries have been slaughtered by warlords with the objective of “harvesting" children. Girls, who constitute up to 40% of child soldiers in certain countries, are especially prized because, in addition to all the things that boys can do, they are useful for cooking, cleaning, as sex slaves and, in some horrifying situations, to produce the next generation of child soldiers.

To a lesser degree, we also have our share of this horror in insurgencies in the North-East, the Naxalite movement and, of course, in countless cases of organized crime ranging from drug dealing, begging, smuggling, prostitution to forced labour.

If one overcomes the repugnancy of the idea, it is easy to see why children are used in conflicts. They are available in plentiful numbers, especially in continents such as Africa and Asia. They can be coerced into absolute submission using tools of fear and violence such as beating, mutilation, rape and execution—often at the hands of peers. Most of the children are orphaned, often by the very warlords who abuse them, and in that fearful daze, they transfer their loyalty to their kidnappers. Crazed with hunger, terror and drugs, they have no sense of humanity or compassion and, therefore, capable of incredible cruelty and violence. Their role models are older children who have become leaders in the groups by displaying those very qualities.

They cost less to “maintain", don’t need to be paid and never question their orders, no matter how repugnant. Children arouse less suspicion, so they can be used for gathering information and entering well-guarded positions where adults would probably be stopped and searched. This is a favoured tactic, especially in insurgencies, making troops jittery about the presence of children. Lastly, even battle-hardened soldiers find it extremely hard to consider children as enemy combatants and hesitate to fire at them. In operations, that hesitation provides a tactical advantage to insurgents and demoralizes regular troops that feel repulsive about fighting children.

The LTTE, for instance, used children successfully against the Indian Peace Keeping Force, and in a macabre twist had created “Bakuts" or baby brigades, consisting children between 10 and 16 years of age and “Sirsu Puli", or leopard brigades, consisting entirely of orphans.

The United Nations estimates that over six million children have been permanently disabled, over two million have been killed and over a quarter of million are being used in conflicts as combatants in over 30 countries. In most instances, this essentially destroys the community’s capability to rebuild itself and leaves an entire generation psychologically and emotionally scarred.

It is only in the last decade or so that the international community has begun to tackle the issue in a meaningful way. In the International Conference on War-Affected Children in Winnipeg, Canada, in September 2000, concrete steps were recommended that included providing amnesty to child soldiers, special emphasis on rehabilitating them and urging governments to eradicate the unfettered supply of small arms as this is a major factor in the proliferation of child soldiers.

There are an estimated 650 million small arms in conflict zones, with responsible developed countries adding a million more each year. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, Russia, France, Britain and the US) continue to be the world’s largest weapons producers.

With a burgeoning child population, both in absolute terms as well as those involved in conflicts and crime, India has a long way to go in addressing this issue. Our recognition and acknowledgement of the problem and the resources allocated to preventing abuse of children and their rehabilitation is minuscule. As a country, we must realize the cost that the society will have to pay if we don’t rescue these ravaged children from conflicts, crime and abuse. And at an individual level, we ought to remember that, but for the grace of God, that devastated child could have been ours.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

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