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World: Young Delegates To UN Conference Share Their Traumatic Pasts

  • Nikola Krastev

In addition to world leaders gathering in New York this week for the UN General Assembly session on children, hundreds of young people are also due to attend as delegates for the first time. They include former child soldiers from Africa and youngsters from Bosnia traumatized by war.

United Nations, 8 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A three-day conference sponsored by the United Nations gets under way today in New York and will focus on ways to improve the lives of the world's over 2 billion children.

Hundreds of children from around the world are attending the conference as delegates, and some of them -- including former child soldiers -- have been speaking this week about their experiences.

At a special "Children and War" discussion panel at the Council of Foreign Relations, a think tank in New York, two former child soldiers narrated chilling stories from their forced participation in a guerrilla war in northern Uganda.

China, who is now 27, says she was abducted and forced to become a soldier at the age of 9 and that she participated in torture and executions. "Many of my comrades and I, we had to torture people -- our own comrades in the bush -- because they wanted to escape. Others had to steal food in order to get something to eat because there was no food, and they had to kill and we had to do that. Many of the government troops that we captured, we killed most of the officers."

China says that, throughout her years as a child soldier, she was sexually abused by a much older superior on a regular basis. In 1995, China says, she was able to escape and later settled in Denmark. Her memoirs, titled "My Life As a Child Soldier," were published last year in Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Most of her comrades, China says, have not been so lucky, and many committed suicide.

Another combat participant, Ismael, who is now 22 years old, says he became a child soldier in Uganda in 1994 and that such a choice is often based on necessity and fear. "[In] Uganda, one of the common things about becoming a child soldier was that you will do it because either you've lost your parents or they've been forced to join the army because they need basic necessities of life, like food, shelter and clothing. And during war times, the rebels or the military are the only people who have such things. So in order for you to get it, you have to be part of it."

Today Ismael, who has settled in Europe, speaks out about the barbaric practice of using children in armed conflicts. "I've became a child soldier, and I fought it all that you can imagine -- some things that you can't even imagine. One of the things whenever I talk that I really want to stress is that what I've been through, [what China's] been through, we were able to get out of it. To me, that's like a sign of hope, that we are getting here, trying to make something happen so we can stop the use of child soldiering. There is that hope that the children who we are trying to save are going to be better people. They might be better leaders of tomorrow. I can tell you for one: If you've been through such a thing and you have the chance to live a normal life again, you would never, ever want to have to do anything with fighting."

Eliza Kantardzic, a 17-year-old from Bosnia-Herzegovina, was one of the participants in a UN Security Council meeting yesterday on children and armed conflict.

Eliza vividly recollected the days of war in her homeland a decade ago and appealed to the Security Council to use its power more effectively in conflict prevention. "But we also need your [UN] help. The best thing you can do is to stop the war, to prevent it. That is the only way to avoid the consequences and everything that war brings. And that is something that [the Security] Council has the power to do. The real question is: Is that power used? You're making decisions here that are affecting whole nations. War and politics have always been an adults' game. But children have always been the losers."

Jose Cabral, an 18-year-old from East Timor, also participated in the Security Council meeting. During the heaviest weeks of fighting in the summer of 1999 between Indonesian anti-independence gangs and East Timorese pro-independence units, Jose says, he helped run a shelter for refugees in his school in Dili, the capital of East Timor, together with the principal and some 17 other students.

Cabral told the Security Council about his ordeal: "[It was] very sad, very strange, and it seems terrible when we found there was no child playing, no singing. There was only silence or guns. We began to play the guitar and to sing together to help us forget."

During the Security Council meeting on children and armed conflict, it was estimated that there are 85 countries where children are still under threat to be abducted and forced into sexual slavery or soldiering.