Samantha Nutt is the author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid. She is a founder of War Child.
What happens to the aphorism that “old men wage war while young men die in it” when demographics can no longer sustain this bloodthirsty equation? The unfolding morass in the world’s newest country provides some unfortunate answers: Once those of legal age are worn through, their ranks are replenished from an ever-younger pool.
This blighted reality has been on full display over the past year as hostilities have returned to South Sudan, resulting in a resurgence of child soldiers – now believed to number more than 9,000 – pulled from the mud-and-thatch villages that stretch across the Upper Nile’s serpentine path.
Perhaps resurgence is too optimistic a word, as it implies that there was a time in recent memory in South Sudan when 10-year-olds didn’t stagger into the bush with weather-beaten Kalashnikovs swinging from their wiry frames at the behest of itinerant commanders. Which isn’t so – even during the ebullient months following independence, the best Sudan’s war masters could offer on ending the use of child combatants was a cartoonish commitment to try to try.
The truth is, even when war was declared more or less over (we now know it was less), it was impossible to roam the washed-out streets of Malakal – a donkey-cart town at the epicentre of the latest round of violence – and not see grade-school kids in military-issue uniforms “guarding” government projects or trailing behind faction leaders whose oil shares were still being negotiated.
But South Sudan is only one of many wars in which children, in contravention of international law, have become the fulcrum upon which anarchy and brutality depend. Militant groups in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Libya, Colombia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are also replenishing their ranks with less-than-abled bodies for whom puberty is referenced in the future tense. And when those won’t do, as the disturbing growth in recruits from Western countries attests, there are plenty of glabrous young men with foreign passports who are naive to war and willing to accept one-way tickets to be eulogized by the likes of AQIM, the Islamic State or al-Shabaab.
The recent rise in global conflict means more children on the front lines, and no number of blankets, food packets, mobile clinics or tents distributed by aid groups and United Nations agencies is likely to change that. Prosecuting the most egregious abusers of child soldiers in international criminal courts has proved to be less of a disincentive than initially hoped. This is because in civil wars in particular, it’s the winners who get to call the witnesses, and so expediency trumps all other calculations. There are other strategies that work, but they mean wading into the fearsome domain of “sociological phenomena.”
In war zones, children and youth end up joining armed groups through one of two means: choice or force. The story most of us are familiar with is the one that involves force – children stolen from their homes or classrooms who are subjected to a brutal process of indoctrination and dehumanization. But the disconcerting reality of life in areas of high conflict is that many more young people end up in militia groups by choice, and the three most powerful drivers pushing them in this direction are fear, finances and fanaticism.
In all instances, providing safe, protective environments for children and their families, such as enhanced security in refugee and displaced people’s camps, reduces both the appeal and reach of armed groups. Yet such preventive measures are often poorly resourced in emergencies because their benefits aren’t as easily quantified or understood by international donors. Only the bravest development minister on the slowest media day would step forward with a multimillion-dollar aid announcement to furnish the world’s refugee camps with better lighting and trained security personnel, even though it’s a fine place to start.
Then there is the economic issue. In countries where youth unemployment verges on 50 per cent, armed groups deliver paying jobs with no experience required. While it’s hard to find the income to replace what young people might earn from combat, or to offset what families might receive by surrendering a child to a militant leader, my organization’s experience providing vocational training in Darfur, South Sudan and Afghanistan over the past decade offers a measure of optimism: If another option exists, reasonable people will choose not to send their children to the front lines.
The most challenging driver to tackle is fanaticism. Generational grievances, family war narratives, revenge fantasies, narcissism, arrogance, ignorance, racism, solidarity of purpose, a sense of belonging, psychopathology – all of these can lead otherwise normal young people to embrace destructive, anti-social movements. Education and community outreach may be the best defence against some factors, but they are by no means a guarantee.
In the end, there will always be those who choose the destructive path of war over peace. The only way to thwart them is to leave fewer foot soldiers at their disposal – especially if those feet are still in children’s shoes.