Wetenschap - 3 oktober 2002

Child soldiers can help themselves

Child soldiers can help themselves

Child soldiers, hardly ten years old, carrying AK47s as big as themselves; perhaps one of the most haunting images in the West of the civil war that raged for ten years in Sierra Leone. Now that the war is over, several programmes have tried to turn the child soldiers into normal civilians again, but they have a high failure rate.

Reactions of adults to child soldiers differ. Victims of the violent children view them as criminals of war, and even believe the youngsters are evil and joined the army out of sheer joy for killing. The other reaction, mostly found among donors and humanitarian aid agencies, is to see child soldiers as victims, often forced to join the army or being drugged by adults to make them do so.

Both reactions tend to assume the children are passive, neglecting the capacity of young people to act and think for themselves, argues PhD researcher Krijn Peters. He is examining what causes the high levels of youth conscription and what opportunities young people themselves see to earn a livelihood in agriculture instead of warfare. Many programmes that try to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate children into normal life have not succeeded because they fail to recognise the ability of the children to make a living, Peters believes. Often the ex-combatants, as he prefers to call them, are sent back to school as part of these programmes. But that doesn't make sense, according to Peters, because the former soldiers will be 25 or older when they have finished secondary school, in a country where there are few jobs that require trained labour.

Projects in Liberia where ex-combatants got a course to become a car mechanic are not a success either, believes Peters. The idea is nice, but there were no cars to repair in the rural areas the young people returned to. A good market survey should be done before such projects are started up, suggests Peters. More promising, he believes, are projects that are based in agriculture and are the initiative of the young people themselves. He did come across one example: the former warriors rebuilt a village together with the rest of the community. Only projects that are owned by the young people themselves are likely to be successful, argues Peters.

Joris Tielens

Re:ageer