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Child Soldiers and Perpetual War

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The Child Soldiers Protection Act of 2008 was designed to restrict military and security aid to countries that use child soldiers. President Obama granted waivers last year, to allow countries time to end the conscription of children under the age of 15 into armed conflict. However, another series of waivers has been issued, despite the United Nations reports of 2010/2011, of continued worldwide use of child soldiers. American foreign policy seems to miss the widespread political, cultural, socio-economic, and moral damage worldwide, from the continued use of children in armed conflict.

Child soldiers. The term brings images of dirt-laden black boys dawning tattered green uniforms, dirtied tan boots to the shins, and of course, a thin-barreled AK-47 slung around their bony arms. A boy with drugged-out pupils who uses a machete to kill neighbors with the same ease in which he chops cassava leaves. We try not to be intrigued, but we are intimately fascinated by the ability of children to kill. And then we forget about them. To do so is a sign of our moral failing.

Contextually, in some low-income, low-resource, politically unstable countries wrought with inequity and violence, it makes sense for a child to be a soldier. At age two, some children are left to play in dirt, under the care of their seven-year-old sibling. At age five, some sell bananas in the market place. Children represent extra labor: another body to care for other children, do chores, fetch water and firewood, and earn money through small trade. Most African countries are youthful with poor family planning. It makes sense that children would be soldiers in this context. Children are seen as expendable, with "adult" responsibilities.

Though many children are abducted into the rebel army, others join in the face of starvation, a lack of opportunities and the need to provide for their families. Rebel groups promise high military positions, education, homes, and safety of their family. At a time of adolescence and childhood, when most should be learning about peer relations and socializing, these youth are learning that to trust is not safe. To show kindness and friendship will kill the object of your affection. That silence, isolation, and lack of feeling while murdering are the only means of survival.

"At 14, we got caught trying to escape. At first, they buried us alive, but we managed to live. So after two days, they gave me a machete and told me to kill my best friend. I wouldn't, so they called other child soldiers who butchered him piece by piece while he called out my name," reports one Burundian former child soldier, as his eyes glaze down at the 2-year-old son sitting calmly in his lap. "I can't get that image out of my head. Now I just keep quiet -- I don't want to be part of what's happening."

When formal peace treaties are signed and international attention focuses on human rights abuses of the conscription of child soldiers, the UN launches a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program to give a demobilization package and sometimes reintegration programs to child soldiers, defined as anyone under 18 affiliated with an armed group, including roles other than armed conflict. However, in some countries like Sierra Leone, many girl combatants, who were cooks, porters, messengers/informants, and also sex slaves and fighters, were initially excluded from the program. Moreover, in countries like Burundi, those that managed to escape the rebellion prior to the peace negotiation were excluded from aide.

Internationally, the world has largely forgotten about the experiences of child soldiers from a decade ago. But now that the wars are over, these child soldiers are now adults, and expected to act as such.

But the experiences are different. Civilians stigmatize them, calling them animals; "after I got married, neighbors told my husband that I'd kill him," says one former girl combatant, caring for a child of rape by her chief. "No one will help or even talk to me."

Former child soldiers regret the opportunity cost of joining the rebellion: "I could have been going to school or learning a trade. Now all I know is how to fight, but I realized there's nothing to fight for," says a father of four. The stigma faced by their communities can create persecution by police, neighbors, and political opponents.

If they earn money, they are persecuted by police, neighbors, or political opponents. If they do not earn money, they are shamed by their families and communities for not fulfilling their role. In addition to poverty, sounds of gunfire and war planes shower their sleep. Images of being forced to brutally kill, and to witness unspeakable acts, are indelible in one's mind. War continues every minute of everyday for these young children who were forced into a lifelong hell.

The former child soldiers I work with in Burundi ask to have their voices heard, their experiences known, and their lives used to help others at risk for war. They continue to live a legacy of isolation, marginalization, and hopelessness.

U.S. military assistance should not be used to finance the exploitation of children into armed conflict. The Child Soldiers Protection Act (CSPA) was a step in the right direction, to shame and punish countries that conscript children to fight wars, such Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, and Sudan. However, providing waivers for two years in a row is a step backwards. Not only for moral and ethical reasons, but to support the use of child soldiers is not in our national or international security interest. We should demand immediate action to enforce the CSPA and prevent a generation of youth from a life of perpetual war.