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Child Soldiers Of The Balkans

Children playing with toy guns in Sarajevo in 1996
Children playing with toy guns in Sarajevo in 1996

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child categorically prohibits involving children in war operations. But despite international conventions, minors continue to be used as soldiers in military conflicts around the world. Europe is no exception -- thousands of child soldiers fought during the Balkan wars between 1991 and 1995. Mirjana Rakela, from RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian-Languages Service, received the Lorenzo Natali Prize on November 15 for her reports on child soldiers, first broadcast in November 2007.

Narcis Misanovic was 11 years old when he joined the Bosnian Army defending Sarajevo.

"I was in Dobrinja the entire time, a neighborhood that was under siege throughout the war, without food, without water, without gas, and without the possibility of leading a normal life. I was a member of the Third battalion of the Fifth troop," Misanovic said.

"At first, I carried out courier duties, then I was in charge of taking care of weapons.... As a child, I didn't find service difficult, it was rather a positive thing. I understood that these people had the same goal, which was to live together."

Narcis doesn't feel he missed out too much on school -- his friends and fellow soldiers, he says, helped him get by.

The war, however, has taken a heavy toll on his family. His father and brother were killed, and the apartment where he once lived was destroyed.

Although it's difficult to put a figure on the number of children involved in the 1991-1995 Balkan wars, Croatia's Association of Underage War Volunteers of the Homeland War estimates that some 3,000 boys fought in the conflict.

Most of them were aware that their age didn't allow them to take up arms. In interviews with RFE/RL, former boy soldiers nonetheless insist they had a right to defend their home, their school, and their city regardless of their age.

They are now claiming the same rights as other, older volunteers. Most hold documents from the Defense Ministry that confirm their participation in the war as minors.

Damir Besednik became a soldier when he was 16. He says he fought extensively throughout Croatia.

"I was on almost all of the battlefields in Croatia, from the beginning to the end of the Homeland War. I set out from Vinkovci. Each one of us had a right to defense, regardless of age, gender, nationality, or skin color," Besednik said.

"It's about the truth, about 3,000 stories, about lives, about fates and wounds that have already healed. We cannot allow this to be forgotten. We are not asking to have movies made, stories or songs written about us. We are respectable people in our thirties who want peace. And we are doing this for peace, not only in Croatia but throughout Europe, in order for this never to happen again. All of us have confirmation from the Defense Ministry, a valid document that proves we were members of even the most elite formations. We are not lying. Nobody can be a part of our association if they don’t have a valid confirmation from the Defense Ministry which states that they were a minor at the

From High School To War

Nenad Bukvic, from the city of Doboj, in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was 17 years old when he picked up a rifle and joined the Army of Republika Srpska.

He says he wasn't coerced into fighting. He was also fully aware that his young age forbade him to take part in the hostilities.

"I knew that, although I was not yet a grown-up. I went straight from high school to war. Nobody forced me, I went voluntarily. When we ended up encircled, in this part of Republika Srpska, I didn’t go for personal reasons, I went to defend my house. Hats off to everyone who was on the other side, who fought against me. If aliens were to attack us tomorrow, it would again be the same [group] of us who would go and defend our country. I am not ashamed of the acts I committed during the war. My Muslim neighbors have returned, and I'm not ashamed to look them in the eye," Bukvic said.
Narcis Misanovic was 11 when he joined the Bosnian Army

Associations of demobilized fighters in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croat war invalids of the Croat Defense Council (HVO) say they tried to take child soldiers away from the battlefields back to their homes.

But many children would then join other units, concealing their age; in times of war and siege, age was also often of secondary importance.

Novica Kostic served as a reservist for the former Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) on the territory of Croatia. Today, he is a member of the Veterans of Serbia’s War for Peace.

He says he is not aware of any minors fighting in JNA’s units:

"I don’t have such information. There were some children on the territory where the hostilities were taking place who fought in areas where the war was at people's doorsteps. I have a Bosnian friend who is a member of the association with me now, and who at the time took part in the war when he was under 18 years," Kostic said.

Happy Endings

In Serbia, the issue of child soldiers has yet to be seriously tackled; there are still no data, no statistics.

Ljubomir Pejakovic, from Serbia's Center for the Rights of the Child, says there were certainly individual cases of child soldiers.

"This is indisputable. I'm even inclined to believe that children may have participated in these conflicts. I remember a father who brought back his son from the bus station twice, so that he wouldn't go to Bosnia's battlefields," Pejakovic said.

The stories of Narcis, Damir, and Nenad all have happy endings. They are now adults, they have finished schools, they try to help their wartime peers reintegrate into society and find employment.

Many other children, however, never returned from the war.

One woman from Zagreb, who wished to remain anonymous, tells RFE/RL that her teenage son was killed in combat:

"He was barely 17 years old. He went to war at the very beginning, without his parents' consent. He used to study at the graphics school. The school was hit, and a group of boys from the school left to defend Croatia," she said.

"We tried to stop him in every possible way. I told him that there were older people who had military training, who had completed military service, that they should be the ones fighting. He said these people didn't have the courage they had. He enrolled in the Croatian Defense Forces (HOS), a reconnaissance group. He said he was 19. He went on reconnaissance missions. One day, seven of them were encircled by the JNA on one side and paramilitary formations on the other. Almost all of them got killed in that mission.

"One day, just after New Year's Eve, I was getting ready for work when my door bell rang at six in the morning. For one second I thought maybe my son had come home, although I felt something had happened. A mother's heart feels these things. It was two soldiers. Since then, I have become a believer. That saved me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have wanted to live any longer."

International child protection groups and psychologists have long warned how easily children are manipulated in armed conflicts. Children, they say, are too young to be able to make informed decisions and moral judgments.

The respected international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers cautions that, even when children voluntarily join armed groups or live in regions under siege, adults are committing a serious crime by welcoming them into military ranks.

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