Former Child Soldiers Work to Save Those Left Behind

Even after being rescued, "our heads are filled with arms", says former child soldier Kon Kelei. On the occasion of Universal Children's Day on Nov. 20, the UN launched a photo exhibit titled "Children of War: Broken Childhood", based on a book called "Child Soldiers" that features the work of prominent war photographers. (Credit:UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Former Child Soldiers Work to Save Those Left Behind

UNITED NATIONS - "An AK-47 is not
made for a kid. It is not made for a human being, let alone a kid,"
said Kon Kelei, a former child soldier from Sudan. Kelei was taken to a
camp when he was four or five years old -- he is not precisely sure --
and trained to fight in battle.

"What we need is to focus
and advocate for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation made me who I am today
and what I am saying today," he stressed.

Kelei and other former child soldiers, along with youth
leaders who have firsthand experience in conflict zones, this month
launched a new Global Network of Young People Formerly Affected by War
(NYPAW) at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The group is led by UNICEF advocate Ismael Beah, who wrote the
international bestseller "A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Child Soldier",
where he describes his experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
Beah served in the Sierra Leonean army for almost two years -- a
reminder that it is not only rebel groups which recruit children.

The objective of the network is to demand accountability and to promote
rehabilitation and empowerment of young people who are affected by
armed conflict.

"The reason why we believe that change is possible is not because we
are idealists but because we believe we have made it, so other people
can make it as well," Kelei said.

With an estimated 250,000 children around the world recruited
to serve in armed conflicts as soldiers, messengers, spies, porters,
cooks, for sexual services or even as suicide bombers, this is a
pressing social issue that needs to be better addressed by the
international community, advocates say.

"From the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Gaza Strip and
from Afghanistan to Somalia, too many children are suffering from the
consequences of conflict," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, special
representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed

"War violates every right of the child. Everybody has a role
to play to stop these violations. We cannot let war continue to destroy
childhood," she said, adding that, "The power of resilience of these
children should give us the strength to continue to mobilise the
international community to do more to stop this terrible phenomenon."

UNICEF often conducts delicate negotiations with warlords to try to
gain the release of child soldiers without putting them at risk. That
is why there is a great need for a knowledge-based advocacy system like
NYPAW, with sub-networks on the ground in various countries that can
provide information on the needs and particularities of each individual

Part of the network's mandate is to raise awareness and
empower local communities, but also to demand accountability and
contribute to the reconciliation process in countries experiencing

The purpose is to send a clear message to armed groups and
governments to stop recruiting children, as well as providing
facilities for rehabilitation and plans for reintegration into civilian

"When we get out of the war, our heads are filled with arms,"
Kelei said. "When we are disarmed, there is no room to function like a

"When you have effective rehabilitation that is more holistic,
then you have a place that you can make so that you continue with your
life," he said.

Saad Houry, deputy executive director of UNICEF, also stressed
the importance of education and schools as promoters of peace. "If we
could maintain education during conflict, there is no doubt that we
would prevent many children from becoming soldiers," he said.

The techniques recruiters use vary, but they mostly rely on
fear and brainwashing. "We know what you think before you say it," the
rebel leaders used to tell Grace Akallo and other children forced to
fight in Uganda's insurgency.

"I was convinced that he could read my thoughts," said Akallo,
who was captured and joined the forces of the Lord's Resistance Army
(LRA) in northern Uganda when she was 14. That left very little room
for any escape plans. "Killed or be killed" was the motto they lived
by, she said.

Akallo also stressed the terrible position of girl soldiers.
"Girls are doing a double war," she said. They are trained like boys as
soldiers but they are also used as "wives" for adult fighters, she
said. In many cases, they are sent to fight while pregnant, giving
birth in the middle of a battle or fighting with a baby on their back.

On the occasion of Universal Children's Day on Nov. 20, the U.N. also
launched a photo exhibit titled "Children of War: Broken Childhood",
based on a book called "Child Soldiers" that features the work of
prominent war photographers.

It was organised by the Office of the Special Representative
of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict with the
support of the Italian government and in collaboration with the United
Nations Department of Public Information.

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