Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach
Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

4.3.1 Child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Burma and Uganda

Figure 12
Figure 12 Child soldier with a gun in Sierra Leone.

Concern about child soldiers grew in the 1990s, with the conflict in Sierra Leone in particular providing many iconic images of a child soldier. The image of a child soldier is a difficult one. To see a young child with a machine gun or a rocket launcher is to look at a deeply incongruous and ambiguous image of childhood. Is this child a victim or a perpetrator of violence? Usually the story told of these children is that they were taken unwillingly by an army or quasi-military group and subjected to indoctrination and intimidation, sometimes given drink and drugs and sent out to kill. Two children from Burma and Uganda recount how they became soldiers.

Zaw Tun, aged fifteen, was forcibly conscripted for the Burmese army

I was recruited by force, against my will. One evening while we were watching a video show in my village three army sergeants came. They checked whether we had identification cards and asked if we wanted to join the army. We explained that we were under age and hadn't got identification cards. But one of my friends said he wanted to join. I said no and came back home that evening but an army recruitment unit arrived next morning at my village and demanded two new recruits. Those who could not pay 3,000 kyats had to join the army, they said. I could not pay, so altogether 19 of us were recruited in that way and sent to Mingladon [an army training centre].

(BBC World Service Online, 2002)

Susan, aged sixteen, abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda

One boy tried to escape [from the rebels], but he was caught … His hands were tied, and then they made us, the other new captives, kill him with a stick. I felt sick. I knew this boy from before. We were from the same village. I refused to kill him and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it. The boy was asking me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I said I had no choice. After we killed him, they made us smear his blood on our arms … They said we had to do this so we would not fear death and so we would not try to escape … I still dream about the boy from my village who I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me and saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying.

(Human Rights Watch, 2001)

Not surprisingly, these children tend to downplay their actual involvement in violence. Their recruitment, they claim, was involuntary and when they took part in atrocities they did so out of fear and coercion. In many cases, no doubt, this is . However, it is also important to note that some children have been willing volunteers, finding in these armies a sense of purpose and comradeship and learning skills of loyalty, teamwork and independence.

The wars in Sierra Leone and Uganda in the 1990s were particularly brutal and it is not surprising that children have been caught up in atrocities. Even so, child soldiers have often provoked particular fear as being exceptionally brutal and without pity or mercy. Children who are recruited into paramilitary or state armies are often brutalized by having seen family members killed. Sometimes they have known nothing other than war and violence. They are seen as easy to manipulate and many have learned to distrust adult authority.

There is therefore another side to child soldiers and while they, and their supporters, claim that they are among war's victims, others have claimed that they are the perpetrators of violence and must be called to account for their actions. Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has asked the United Nations Security Council to approve the prosecution of those child soldiers in Sierra Leone over the age of fifteen who were involved in murder, mutilation and rape (McGreal, 2000).