In countries around the world, children are being forced to kill other children, and they are marched across harsh terrain or forced to be "wives" of soldiers and rebels. A dangerous and growing trend, "some 300,000 children are serving as soldiers in current armed conflicts," the organization Human Rights Watch reports. The children are typically abducted and coerced through techniques of fear, intimidation and violence to "wield AK-47s and M-16s on the front lines of combat, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions, carry supplies, acts as spies, messengers and lookouts," Human Rights Watch reports.
The problem of abducted children being recruited by force is a problem especially prevalent in Uganda, the United Nations reports. With an estimated 300,000 children abducted to work as child soldiers and porters by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army since the beginning of the crisis, the United Nations places this growing humanitarian crisis as one of the "10 stories the world should hear more about."
"These are real people this is happening to," stressed Stephanie Bunker, spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in a phone interview.
Fighting the Ugandan government since the 1980s, almost 90 percent of the rebel forces are said to be made up of these abductees. Typically, rebel forces steal children away from villages made up of populations that have already been displaced by continuing combat and crisis. Most between the ages of 12 and 16, these young people are forced into the lives of fighters or sexual slaves, being "controlled by a combination of threats, violence and drugs," the group Anti-Slavery International reports.
Considered easy to control and fearless because of their age, such children are key targets for manipulation by combatant forces, even though they face high casualty rates because of their inexperience. Violence and coercion are used to keep them in line, and they face severe consequences if they attempt to leave their captors.
"They have no choice to but to fight. If they attempt to escape, resist orders, or cannot keep up, or if they become ill, they are killed," the Human Rights Watch report continued.
One boy, an 11-year-old abductee, reported to Anti-Slavery International that he and other children faced hunger and thirst and carried heavy loads of guns and other supplies. When another boy attempted an escape, he and the other children were ordered to beat the escapee to death. Threatened with death, they did as they were told and beat the boy again and again until he died.
Because of this rash number of abductions, many children in villages have fled into what they hope are safer urban areas. These "Night Commuters" are children who leave their family's homes for a night, seeking safety in places such as schools, hospitals or even the urban streets. Bunker said that the number of "Night Commuters" has risen lately, reaching an estimated 42,000. Being in such settings, especially on the street, can pose a number of risks for these children, including the risk of abduction.
Such horror stories are becoming alarmingly more common as the crisis grows. Bunker notes that not only have an estimated 1.6 million people been internally displaced in Uganda, but the conflict is now spilling into Sudan, forcing people there to seek safety in Ugandan camps that already have substandard living conditions for the refugees.
Recent reports have also indicated that the violence is growing in severity, with reports of mutilations occurring.
Aid access is also an issue, with access difficult and funding needed.
"It's very hard for (non-governmental organizations) and relief to get access. They can only get access to go in and out of the area with armed escorts, which doesn't allow for any sustained programs," Bunker noted.
It is unfortunate that more attention is not being paid to this severe crisis. The U.N. Web site reports that, despite the severity and ever-growing number of child abductees forced into combat, they have received less than 10 percent of the $130 million requested by the humanitarian community for 2004.
Such funds are desperately needed to pay not only for food and water for the severely malnourished children, but also to conduct rehabilitation programs that will allow them to overcome the severe psychological and sometimes physical traumas that they experienced in their time as forced combatants. Helped at centers such as the Rachele Centre, the BBC reports, children take place in activities such as painting, drawing and discussion to help them come to terms with their experiences and hopefully enter back into their former lives.
"We want to improve programs for the ex-combatants," said Bunker of the United Nations' work in the situation. "If they can go back to their lives, reconcile with their community and be helped to find employment, these are incentives you can give them to lay down their arms."
Besides a need for funding, there is minimal coverage by the mainstream media in the United States, and very few know about this crisis that involves children younger than most of us here at CSU.
"We need to wake up and smell the garbage. It doesn't smell good, and it doesn't look good," Bunker said of the crisis. She recommends searching out information from NGOs and other groups such as Oxfam, the UNICEF or the Red Cross and finding ways to contribute to these organizations' efforts. Writing to our representatives in Congress about the situation is also a useful tool, as it makes them aware of our concern for the situation and calls to attention the need to take action in the situation.
A crisis that has seen the displacement of nearly twice the population of Denver and the often brutal abduction and treatment of children, the situation in Uganda deserves our attention and our assistance.
Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. This is her final column of the semester.