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.
An estimated 300,000 children are currently involved in 33 armed conflicts around the world. Nongovernmental organizations say about 100,000 of them live in Africa.
They are usually between 14 and 18 years of age, although child soldiers as young as nine are not rare.
Some are volunteers, but the vast majority of them were forcefully recruited into paramilitary and military units. They took up arms in order to survive after family, social, and economic breakdowns, often after seeing their families tortured or killed by the regime's soldiers or armed groups.
Girls are not spared either. In El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Uganda, almost a third of little soldiers are girls.
Increasingly modern, user-friendly military technology and weapons have made it easier for armed groups to misuse children and turn them into warriors.
Once recruited, children can be used as cooks, suppliers, or guards. But more often than not, they are sent to the front line of combat, to patrol mine fields, and even on suicide missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Enrique Restoy, of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, says children have fought in all known conflicts in the Middle East. He has personally met many child soldiers from regions such as the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, or Sudan.
Children, he says, suffer the after-effects of war, even when they try to hide them -- war memories don't fade overnight, especially if these children have committed crimes.
Support programs for these children, however, are generally quick and rarely focus on long-term education and social reinsertion.
Restoy says some children are actually proud to have served in armed groups that combated forces occupying their country.
"Children in Iraq and the Palestinian territories live surrounded by violence -- on one side there are armed groups, on the other the occupying army," Restoy said. "They face violence almost daily and unfortunately they have access to weapons. It's true that in some countries, like Yemen, weapons are part of the culture and very young children carry weapons as a symbol of their family's importance and prestige.
"But children are easily manipulated, and this is why we want to prohibit any kind of involvement of children in armed conflicts. They are not mature enough to decide whether or not they want, and should, belong to an armed group. Armed groups or the army recruiting them manipulate them without difficulty. And regardless of whether the children voluntarily join these groups or live in a region under occupation, there's always a crime committed by their recruiters and a manipulation committed by their recruiters."
Diar Bamri, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Iraqi Service, says media reports and international organizations confirm that terrorist groups in Iraq use children as militants.
The "Los Angeles Times" for instance, citing U.S. sources, reported in 2007 that some 800 children suspected of carrying out terrorist attacks were jailed in U.S. prisons in Iraq, some as young as 11 years old.
Poverty is a key factor pushing children to enroll as fighters.
"I think one of the reasons is money. Many come from very poor families, they have lost their fathers and brothers. These families need money because they don't have any regular income. They ask children to go out on the streets and bring money home, they don't ask where this money comes from," Bamri says.
"They tell them to drop out of school because the time is for survival, not education. On the streets, children become easy prey for terrorists and organized groups that recruit them. A child can go anywhere without being stopped by soldiers and policemen, so unfortunately they can carry out any kind of attack.
"Such children do not differ from other children on the street, and there are many thousands of them wandering around Iraqi cities. Who can determine whether a child is good or bad, whether or not he is a terrorist? When you speak to these boys, they tell you: 'I was manipulated, used, forced because our family is very poor.' Terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda pay these children up to $300 a month. By comparison, an average Iraqi family today survives on $100 to $150 a month. That's why these children are ready to do anything for money."
State Of Fear
The testimonials published by Human Rights Watch are shocking. Emilio, recruited into the Guatemalan army when he was 14 years old, recalls how child soldiers were constantly beaten up into a state of permanent fear. They were more often hungry than sated, they had to carry heavy armament. They were taught to fight against enemies in a war they didn't understand.
Susan, a 16-year-old from Uganda, tells the story of a boy from her village who tried to escape after being abducted and recruited into the Lord's Resistance Army. He was captured, and the other children were forced to beat him to death with hoes. After they had killed him, they were ordered to smear their own hands with his blood, to overcome their fear of death and dissuade them from escaping.
Following the latest wave of violence in Burma, Human Rights Watch published a report detailing how the military regime in this Asian country recruits children into their armed forces.
Jo Becka, who works at Human Rights Watch's New York headquarters, says the Burmese army is recruiting thousands of children into its forces.
"The army is constantly increasing its number of battalions, but at the same time there are more and more deserters. The armed forces have trouble meeting recruitment quotas, so they realized that children make an easy target. They approach them on the street, in public places, and force them to join the army," Becka says.
"Children have told us that they are beaten when they are not able to endure military drills. They frequently try to escape, but when they are captured and taken back to the recruitment center, they are beaten by their colleagues. In some cases they are severely injured, some even die. We spoke to about 20 former soldiers. The majority of them were recruited when they were 10 years old.
"Three of the former soldiers we spoke to were recruited twice. One of them was first recruited when he was 14 years old. He managed to escape the following year, but he was captured. When his grandmother and aunt realized that he was back in the army, they traveled to his unit and asked the commander to release him. The man said: 'I will let him go, but only if you bring me five other recruits in exchange.' When the boy found this out, he told his aunt: 'Don't do that, don't bring five other people. Life here is terrible and I have to face it myself.' Afterwards, he started voluntarily signing up for the most dangerous assignments. What he said to us was: "In the army, my life was worthless.'"
The director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Aslan Doukaev, says there is no precise figure for the number of child fighters in the region. But rights groups say a great number of minors are definitely involved in fighting in the North Caucasus.
"I saw with my own eyes how a boy who was 13 or 14 at most grabbed a gun from a Russian paramilitary soldier in the center of Grozny, on a marketplace, and killed him. Children try to get hold of weapons in order to join military groups," Doukaev says.
"I also know that some of them are real experts in planting mines and traps. But there is no organized campaign to recruit children. This often happens spontaneously. Some children don't have parents, others come from poor or destroyed families, and joining militant fighters makes them feel important and significant. Schools are either closed or function poorly, kids have nowhere to go. They have a choice between staying at home and risking being arrested, exposed to violence and drugs; or join one of the military groups. Very often, they choose the second option."
The number of children fighting in Afghanistan is not known either; international organizations say the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have thousands of boys in their ranks. Their number has been declining in recent years. But Mohammad Amin Mudaqiq, the director of RFE/RL's Kabul bureau, says the insurgents are still recruiting children.
"The Talibans usually enroll teenagers, children aged 13 to 14. Some are even younger, but they prepare all of them equally for suicide missions. Al-Qaeda and the Talibans take advantage of the fact that high-ranking state officials are usually happy to meet children. Children are easily brainwashed and led to believe that after the suicide attack, they will go to heaven," Mudaqiq says.
"We know of a boy who was recruited as a suicide bomber but then changed his mind and decided to surrender to authorities. He called his father from Pakistan to ask him for forgiveness, and the father forgave him publicly. A child was used as a human shield in a recent suicide attack in Baghlan that killed around 80 people. The bomber walked behind the child, who approached a member of parliament with a bunch of flowers. Security forces let the child and the older person through, and when they were close to the deputy the suicide bomber detonated the explosive. Insurgents recently also used students from the madrasah in order to approach NATO soldiers in Kabul and attack them. NATO soldiers fired in retaliation, and 12 children died."
In Europe, too, children have been draw into armed conflicts -- the 1990s Balkan wars are the most recent example.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child was largely ignored during the war years, and scores of children died in the fighting. The war prompted the European Union in 2003 to adopt guidelines concerning children affected by armed conflicts.
The European Parliament drafted a resolution aimed at curbing the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts. Such a document would give the European Parliament more leverage on governments, but also international bodies such as the United Nations, when calling for more measures against the use of children in armed conflicts.
One of the driving force behind the resolution was Britain's Sharon Bowles, a member of the European Parliament. Using children as soldiers, she says, is a new form of slavery.
"Quite often they are given drugs and put in the front line, their childish innocence and unpredictable behavior are used as a weapon in war. We want as many people as possible to be aware of the existence of child warriors and to have as many states as possible take part in the action, in order for the Convention on the Rights of the Child to be truly respected," Bowles says.
"I would like to emphasize that the use of children as soldiers is a new form of slavery. This is a type of forced labor in horrifying conditions. This is the worst possible form of slavery. Our goal is to have countries of the West, big nations, such as the United States or Russia, exert real political pressure on countries where this is taking place. This is part of today's reality, but we have to be active in preventing it as much as possible and applying diplomatic pressure."