According to the United Nations, about 10,000 children linked with armed groups were rescued or released in 2009. However, for some their fight for freedom remains uncertain as justice systems the world over are struggling to assess whether the children should be treated as victims or perpetrators.
Messeh Kamara, a survivor of the brutal 11-year Sierra Leonean civil war and now an advocate for child soldiers, stated that “Justice and accountability for us is very important, but then it is also mostly important when our rights are given back to us. They stole our rights from us and when you steal something from someone it is most important that you return that which you stole. Our right to education, health, our basic rights, our fundamental rights as enshrined in international humanitarian laws.”
Forcible recruitment of children is considered a war crime, but United Nations Envoy for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy says states are using a justification that these children are a threat to national security to detain and prosecute them.
Coomaraswamy stated that “Children who are captured and placed in detention are sometimes kept in conditions which do not meet the minimum standards set out in various international legal instruments. These children are often detained for long periods without being granted access to a lawyer or other legal safeguards.”
Many experts on children’s rights state that it is important that children who are recruited and who participate in armed conflict are aware of the consequences of their actions, but that they are not stigmatized or shamed because of their lives as child soldiers.
A key aim and challenge of rehabilitating child soldiers is to ensure that they are able to reintegrate back into a society where in many instances they were a part of inflicting terrible pain and suffering on the communities in which they have to now live. Experts state that there needs to be mechanisms in place so that when a child does return to their community they can participate in truth and reconciliation and healing ceremonies, and are not subject to public shaming.
Many child soldiers face increasing stigma and a lack of economic opportunities, especially in poor countries recovering from conflict. Poverty and lack of opportunity can sometimes even push children back into their lives as soldiers.
A recent story documented a girl named Amony, who was recruited by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda and forced to live in captivity for 12 years as a wife for a soldier.
In the interview she spoke about her experiences when she tried to integrate back into society, and how Ugandans call formerly abducted people “dug paco,” which means “returnees” in her native Acholi. In most communities, the returnees can’t reintegrate as the locals say returnees have “cen,” or the evil spirit.
Advocates say that reintegration is especially difficult for women as many of them were forced to have children with soldiers from the rebel groups.
In 2000, the Ugandan government passed the Amnesty Act, which offered blanket immunity and basic necessities to help with reintegration. However, until the communities within which these former child soldiers wish to begin their lives in accept them, many of them will remain with a sense of captivity as they carry their past with them for the rest of their lives.
Justice programmes which see these children as victims and give them the rehabilitation they need could go a long way to stopping such discrimination and allowing communities to heal.