- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2001

NEW YORK — His parents dead and chaos surrounding him, Ishmael Beah, 14, was "adopted" by the Sierra Leone Army in 1993.
The army trained Mr. Beah and other orphans in the use of light weapons and then hastily sent the boys to the front lines to lie in ambush against rebel troops.
"The military was able to structure, to manipulate you so you thought the best way to do something was to join the military and revenge the death of your parents," he said. "But when you actually go to the front line and fight, its a different issue. I was in the front line, I laid in ambush, and I saw friends of mine shot and killed. I didnt want to pull the trigger, but I had no choice."
After three years with the government army, Mr. Beah was taken in by a Catholic relief group and eventually taken to the United States.
Today, Mr. Beah is a freshman at Oberlin College in Ohio, a confident young man with a wide smile. He testifies frequently to the horrors of child soldiering and the importance of demobilization and reintegration of young combatants.
As many as 500,000 minors have been recruited by government armies, paramilitary militias and rebel groups, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, a group of human rights organizations dedicated to raising the military recruiting age to at least 18. Of these, 300,000 children in 41 countries are now or recently have been in active conflict situations around the world.
Those figures include tens of thousands of 17-year-olds who enlist voluntarily in countries as diverse as the United States, Israel and Singapore.
The situation is most damaging in the sweeping conflicts of Africa and South Asia, but child soldiers are also fighting in Sri Lanka, the Kurdish territories, the Balkans and Paraguay.
The proliferation of light and uncomplicated small arms have made it easier for children as young as 10 to become effective soldiers, say coalition organizers, who also note that children are dragged into long-raging conflicts to supplement thinning ranks of adult soldiers.
And then there are the child-specific roles. Young boys make obedient porters, cooks and human shields and can pass through streets freely as suicide bombers. Young girls can do all that, too, or be forced into sexual slavery.
"One of the most disturbing trends is that children are now recruited for their value as children, rather than as a substitute for adults," said Rory Mungoven, coordinator of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.
"Their recruitment can be used to terrorize and control communities, and they are easier to drug and condition into a life of violence and atrocities."
The coalitions 450-page report this month tracks the use of child soldiers by country and breaks down the recruitment of children among government forces, paramilitary groups and rebel organizations.
Among the main findings:
In Sri Lanka, UNICEF says that children aged 14-17 are most frequently recruited by the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Ethnic Tamil rebels have been fighting the Sinhalese-dominated government since 1983, and the LTTE has carried out suicide attacks since July 5, 1987 "Black Tiger Day." Up to 60 percent of LTTEs battle casualties are said to be minors, though the LTTE says it only uses children in support functions.
Russia does not recruit men under age 18, but opposition forces, particularly in Chechnya, add to their ranks by abducting homeless children.
Thousands of Iraqi children, some as young as 12, are organized into military training camps with names like Saddams Cubs and Saddams Youth. They are trained in Baath Party ideology, light weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
The Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army, an opposition group, made headlines when it released 3,200 child soldiers in February. But its leaders say the rebel group has another 7,000 children awaiting demobilization.
The government of Sudan, meanwhile, has been providing military and technical assistance to the Lords Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group that uses child soldiers.
An estimated 14,000 children, some only 8 years old, are fighting in Colombia. Guerrilla groups refer to their youngest recruits as "little bees" for their agility and ability to sting; the paramilitary groups call theirs "little bells" because they are so useful in detecting traps and attracting fire on the front lines. "Little carts" ferry drugs and weapons without arousing suspicion.
Despite the widespread use of children in combat, there is a growing recognition among governments and even rebel groups that children should not be used as soldiers.
The International Labor Organization calls child soldiering one of the most egregious forms of forced labor.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Organization for African Unity, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference have officially condemned child soldiering.
And 79 countries, including the United States, have signed an agreement banning the deployment of soldiers under the age of 18. The treaty technically an addition to the Convention on the Rights of the Child also limits voluntary enlistment to people who are at least 16 years old.
"Children exposed to war are among the most vulnerable groups in the world," said Olara Otunnu, the special representative for Children and Armed Conflict, addressing a preparatory session of the U.N. conference on children this month.
The worst offenders are not governments but paramilitary groups — which often operate with the knowledge or support of governments — and opposition groups.
These nonstate actors are not bound by U.N. treaties or affected by diplomatic pressure, threats to official aid and investment, or loans from the World Bank or other international institutions.
Coalition organizers concede that international opinion carries less weight with rebel leaders than with elected officials.
"Weve seen some nonstate actors make voluntary pledges to adhere to the same standard, in large part [because] they are looking for ways to enhance their international credibility and legitimacy," said Jo Becker, child-advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
Indeed, todays rag-tag resistance is tomorrows national military — as with the formerly child-recruiting Falintil, the East Timor guerrilla movement that fought Indonesia for independence.
The protocol added to the Convention on the Rights of the Child last year also calls on governments to outlaw the use of child soldiers, a measure meant to ratchet up the pressure on rebel forces and influence pro-government paramilitary units.
The coalition found that most of the minors in military service are, in fact, serving with government troops. But these are overwhelmingly 17-year-olds who will soon be considered adults in most respects.
Several countries — including Colombia, Finland and South Africa — have recently raised their military recruiting age to 18. However, Mr. Mungoven notes, the United States, China, France and Britain, four of the five permanent Security Council members, still accept recruits at age 18. Only Russia has officially banned soldiers younger than 18 years old.
Rebel armies, which by definition operate outside the law, are the ones that tend to deploy the youngest combatants.
Mr. Mungoven said he sees small improvements around the globe, but he said they reflect the winding down of conflicts rather than moral enlightenment.

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