Child soldiers casually commit the most appalling atrocities. Why? How do rebel groups achieve this? And what can we learn from that in the interests of changing child solders back into normal citizens. In search of answers, Lotte Vermeij interviewed hundreds of former African child soldiers.
Child soldiers. We all have an image of them. Teenagers with Kalashnikovs. Boys like those on the cover of Lotte Vermeij’s thesis, for which she received her PhD last week at the Disaster Studies chair group. But this is not just an African phenomenon: child soldiers are found all around the world. There are an estimated quarter of a million of them, and they are certainly not all boys. According to Vermeij, 40 percent of the child soldiers in the group she studied were girls. Vermeij spent four years studying child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda and Mozambique. The result is a disturbing thesis which exposes how innocent and often kidnapped children turn into merciless and loyal murderers.
The thesis is entitled ‘The bullets sound like music to my ears’. Why this title?
‘It is a quote from one of the boys I talked to. That’s how he began to experience that sound. This was said very often in the interviews. Children can get very used to the sound of gunfire and battle. They get comfortable with it and start to feel at home with it.’
Your study focuses primarily on the socialization of child solders: the processes which ensure that children assimilate the culture of the group and become faithful, loyal and obedient to it. How do you create a child soldier?
‘One of the most crucial steps in that transformation is the recruitment process. Children who are kidnapped are often immediately forced to murder their parents or do something dreadful to villagers or friends. If they don’t, they will be murdered. That is an important step because by doing this they burn the bridge to their community. They cannot go back, they are totally alone and no longer have anyone to fall back on. They are then taken into unfamiliar territory. So there you are, 10, 12 or 14 years old, totally disorientated and without any frame of reference related to your old life. The rebel group becomes your new security, your new family. A whole lot of processes come into play then, and violence is a key factor. A lot of violence is used so that the children get hardened to it and eventually start using it themselves. Violence becomes the most normal thing in the world. Then there are ceremonies for initiating you into the group. You are given a new name, and the group becomes your new family.’
You place a strong emphasis on the way the child soldier’s identity changes. How does that work?
‘The majority of the children are recruited under duress. But that doesn’t make you a member of the group straightaway. Your identity changes through that whole socialization process with its various rituals and all the rules there are. This causes the children to start identifying with the group instead of with home. They are often forbidden to talk about home and are severely punished if they do. Socialization is accompanied by a lot of force and violence. It goes very quickly in young children who do not really have an identity yet and are not yet so self-aware. The ideal age is 12 to 14 years, when children are physically strong enough to fight but still easy to manipulate emotionally. Training is an important part of the process. If you really do your best, you will get a rank. That sort of reward, and attaining power, status and respect, are very crucial to the motivation to stay.’
Is there a thought-through strategy behind it?
‘People often think of rebel groups as loose associations, a bunch of bandits out to steal and plunder. But they are actually highly organized and display many similarities. It sometimes seems as though they talk to each other to coordinate how they go about things. How to find the most efficient way of making someone become part of your group. The people leading these kinds of groups are by no means stupid.’
Lotte Vermeij (30) received her PhD on Monday 20 January from Thea Hilhorst (Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction) for a study of the socialization of child solders in African rebel groups. She interviewed 260 child soldiers and ex-child soldiers from the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in Uganda, Renamo in Mozambique, LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) in Liberia, and RUF (Revolutionary United Front) in Sierra Leone. She had more that one meeting with many of these children. Lotte Vermeij lives in Norway and works for the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (Nupi).
Why do these groups make use of children, actually?
‘Most rebel groups do not have the financial means to pay their members for what they do. An adult will complain about that and drop out. Children don’t usually make those sorts of demands yet. Children are much easier to lead that adults, and much easier to motivate, manipulate and brainwash. What is more, child soldiers are a lot less scared when you send them to the front. An adult understands the dangers and knows what can go wrong. So it is easier to get children to do dangerous things. It is a terrible thing to say, but for these kinds of groups, making use of child soldiers is a good strategy.’
Child soldiers are brainwashed and reprogrammed. Does that make them victims or perpetrators?
‘There is no simple answer to that question. Children are kidnapped and forced to murder their parents. That is the start of a process in which eventually they take the initiative to murder people. Is such a child then a perpetrator? That is a very difficult question. On the other hand, you cannot see someone who has murdered dozens or perhaps hundreds of people as a victim in the usual sense of the word. He or she has victims too. Personally I don’t think you can say whether they are the one or the other.’
You express strong criticism of the current programmes for helping ex-child soldiers to reintegrate in the community. What needs to change?
‘The programmes are too short. You cannot reintegrate someone in a couple of weeks or months if they have come to think in an entirely different way, and live in a totally different world. One of the girls I spoke to was sent home after a couple of weeks of rehabilitation. She went back to live with her parents. But she did not want to be there at all – all she wanted was to go back to the bush. There were a lot of rows. During a row with her father, who was sitting drunk under a tree, she grabbed a machete and hacked off his head. Needless to say, that caused a big commotion, but she had no idea why. That was just how she was used to resolving things like that. Child soldiers need to shake off their rebel identity and adopt a new identity. The community needs to be involved in this process too. There is a lot of fear on both sides. The relationship with the community is seriously out of kilter. Both sides need to grow towards each other again and learn to trust each other. But there is no space for that in the current programmes, and child soldiers are offered help as an isolated group. It is very important to take a more integrated approach, so that both parties learn to live with each other again.’
You interviewed hundreds of people who had committed the most atrocious crimes. Did that change you?
‘The first time I found it very hard to find a balance in how much to engage with the story. If you go too far in your own feelings of empathy, you won’t be able to keep it up. Fortunately, I found a way to preserve some distance, but not too much. It is a thin line you are treading. I am optimistic and I believe every human being has good in them, even if they do have such dreadful acts on their conscience. I also very strongly believe that everyone is capable of those sorts of things. If hell broke loose here in the Netherlands, I don’t think we would act very differently. For us those conflicts in Africa are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ We have no right to judge. We lead very privileged lives. There is always a safety net here, someone who will come to your defence. I am very conscious of that.’