ATHENS, Ohio - A child with a gun may look and act like a fighter, but when two former Ohio University students see footage of the youth soldiers in their homeland of Sierra Leone, they see something else: victims.
“When we talk about child soldiers, we don't focus on what happens to the children,” said Marda Mustapha, a doctoral candidate at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. “It is the responsibility of the adults to make it clear that what is happening to children today is going to affect them tomorrow.”
Mr. Mustapha and Abdul Rahman Lamin, both 34 and from Freetown, Sierra Leone, spoke yesterday at Ohio University's Center for International Studies conference Children of the World: Risk and Hope. The men earned master's degrees from OU three years ago.
They have not been home to their war-torn country on Africa's central west coast in several years, but both have lost friends and family members to the civil war that began in 1991. Mr. Mustapha's father was attacked in his Freetown home and his extended family members have been killed.
“We have very graphic and horrific stories,” said Mr. Lamin, who lives in Washington and attends Howard University. “Sometimes we get a little emotional. It's understandable. We live and grew up in those places. We still have families there.”
The United Nations estimates that as many as 10,000 children - boys and girls - have been kidnapped and forcibly drafted into military service by both the rebel forces and government troops.
“Children are victims of war in Sierra Leone, not only because they have been killed, but because they have been used by all sides in the conflict to perpetuate some of the worst atrocities,” Mr. Lamin said.
Socialized not to trust authority other than their commanders and desensitized to violence, the children are a serious threat to Sierra Leone when the country stabilizes, Mr. Mustapha said.
“They know how to terrorize everyone into submission. They know how to carry arms and they know how to attack,” he said. “If we don't do something about child soldiers, we're not going to know peace in the future.”
Yet while some authorities seek to punish children as war criminals, children's advocates are developing trauma treatment, socialization programs, and adoption initiatives for youth who leave the fighting.
“There is a wide range of opinions as to what should be done,” Mr. Lamin said. “Children were very visible in committing crimes in the community.”