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An unending nightmare

Contemporary warfare has contributed new categories to the lexicon of war—ethnic cleansing, strategic rape, disappearing your enemy, and the phenomenon that needs more coverage than it gets, child soldiers.

Ethnic cleansing—a term translated from Serbo-Croatian—was widely employed in the 1990s to describe the brutal treatment of civilian groups in the conflicts that ensued the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Some critics contend that campaigns by Albanians and Serbs to “homogenise” their section of territory by “cleansing” it of the “other” ethnic group was historically neither new nor remarkable.

They point to the forced resettlement of peoples throughout history at the hands of one dominant group or another—peoples driven from Mesopotamia by Assyrians in the ninth century, Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th, repeatedly expelled in fact, till Hitler’s “final solution;” Indian tribes annihilated by American settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, Armenians driven out and decimated by Turks during World War I, down to the present, where we see for ourselves history brutally repeating itself.

Thus, whether ancient, modern, or contemporary, if “ethnic cleansing” lacked depth or density before, that’s hardly the case now.

It attached not only to dealings between Serbs and Albanians, but to the treatment by Indonesian militants of the people of East Timor, and to the killing spree by Hutus in Rwanda against Tutsis.

Rwanda was not, as we perhaps thought, the last instance of “never again” becoming “yet again.” Today thousands of Africans from Darfur, Sudan, continue to be driven from their homes and killed by Arab militias, in the worst case of ethnic cleansing since Kosovo.

Rape is a somewhat different case. Throughout history it has been practically synonymous with war. The clearing of the dust of battle meant the annihilation of surviving males, and the women raped and carted off into slavery.

The difference today is that rape has become an instrument of war itself, a feature consistently catalogued by Human Rights Watch, in conflicts from West Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast), to Serbia, Chechnya, East Timor and Sudan.

Under international humanitarian law, rape and sexual violence are now specifically enumerated offences. Within the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, they are codified as independent and recognisable crimes, instruments of torture and genocide.

Disappearing the enemy (the verb in the active voice) is Latin America’s special input. Los desaparecidos, the disappeared ones, became public currency in Argentina following the 1976 military coup, and remains for many the symbol of an unended nightmare.

Between 1976 and 1983, thousands of people, many of them dissidents and innocent civilians unconnected with terrorism, were arrested, only to vanish without a trace—disappeared by the army.

After the return of democracy, the report of a national commission on their fate revealed the systematic abductions of men, women, and children, the existence of secret detention centres, and the methodic use of torture and murder.

Following the Falklands War, all records were destroyed by the military. To this day los desaparecidos have never been seen nor heard from.

Which brings me to child soldiers. According to Human Rights Watch, child soldiers are reported as participating or having participated in 33 armed conflicts in almost every region of the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, but including the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Indonesia, Croatia, Chechnya, Colombia—the list goes on and on. While the majority of the children are between the ages of 15 and 18, some are as young as seven or eight.

Children are uniquely vulnerable to military recruitment because of their emotional and physical immaturity. They are easily manipulable and can be drawn into violence. They are too young to resist or understand. Immaturity also leads them to take excessive risks. According to one rebel commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “(children) make good fighters because they’re young and want to show off. They think it’s all a game, so they’re fearless.”

Technological advances in weaponry and the proliferation of small arms have also contributed to their increased deployment. Lightweight automatic weapons are simple to operate, often easily accessible, and can be used by children as easily as adults.

According to a UN report, children are often snatched from their own neighbourhoods where local militia or village leaders are obliged to meet recruitment quotas.

In the Sudan, children as young as 12 have been rounded up from buses and cars. In Guatemala, youngsters have been grabbed from streets, homes, parties, and even violently removed from churches. In the 1980s, the Ethiopian military practised a “vacuum cleaner” approach, recruiting boys, sometimes at gunpoint, from football fields, markets, religious festivals or on the way to school.

In the different armed forces, government, opposition, or other radical militias, children serve in supporting roles such as porters, spies, messengers, look-outs, and sexual slaves. They also serve as human shields, or otherwise as fully conscripted soldiers. The numbers run into the hundreds of thousands, but solid figures are hard to come by, as government and other groups deny or downplay the children’s roles.

The UN report, however also notes that children are often deliberately brutalised in order to harden them into greater ruthlessness. In some conflicts, they have been forced to commit atrocities against their own families.

In Sierra Leone, for example, the Revolutionary United Front forced captured children to take part in the torture and execution of their own relatives, after which they were led to neighbouring villages to repeat the slaughter. Elsewhere, before battle, young soldiers have been given amphetamines, tranquillisers and other drugs to “increase their courage” and to dull their sensitivity to pain.

It’s difficult to reintegrate demobilised children after a peace settlement is reached. Many have been physically or sexually abused by the very forces for which they have been fighting, and have seen their parents killed, sometimes in the most brutal manner, in front of their eyes. Most have also been led into participating in murder, rape and other atrocities. These children have no skills for life in peacetime and they are accustomed to getting their way through violence.

We’re used to thinking of veterans’ programmes as involving adult veterans of war, and including a range of programmes in heathcare and further education. Demobilising and re-integrating child solders include quite a different agenda—placement in orphanage-type institutions, the training of teachers sensitive to the needs of child victims, and a return to school. What it cannot include, of course, is any return to childhood.

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