Why do fighting factions abstain from using child soldiers in Sierra Leone?
How does an ethnographer find out why groups abstain from using child soldiers? How does one do participant observation regarding a phenomenon that did not happen? First of all, it was fairly rare for commanders not to use children in the fighting. At the beginning of the conflict, there was little or no conception of the issue of “child soldiers.” The closest I can come to investigating the phenomenon of abstention at this point is to talk about commanders who demobilized children in their ranks, either during or after the fighting. In this section, therefore, I am mainly talking about efforts to get fighting forces to stop using child soldiers rather than explaining why they didn’t use them in the first place.
I believe that the main technique stopping factions from using child soldiers is international pressure, either from child soldier issue groups or from International NGOs or UNICEF. This technique obviously works better with government forces or others who think they might have something to gain from the international community. The most recent report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers reports that there are no more children involved in the government army (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers 2003). Also, the RUF gave up child soldiers at a greater rate when they were participating in the coalition government (Brooks Unpublished Report). The CDF gave up child soldiers at a greater rate, or at least made public proclamations to that effect, when they started trying to be a national political force instead of a local militia.
On the ground, there was frequent “sensitization” to the rights of the child. In the last years of the war, NGO workers reached out to communities, schools, elders, and force commanders with a message of respect for the standards of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), both to convince the forces to give up their child soldiers and to convince communities to accept there erstwhile sons and daughters back into the fold.
Most successful was the promise of material benefits for registered ex-combatants. In Masakane, I witnessed a meeting between a child protection worker, Abu, and Obia, the CDF commander I introduced above. Abu said he had some to acquaint Obia with the child protection NGO’s work in the region, and to ask him to turn over the children so they could get benefits. (Obia countered that another NGO had already come around asking children to register and promising benefits and nothing had materialized, so he was not sure it was worth going through the whole thing again.) Obia agreed that it was important to think about the children, but countered that that was exactly what they were doing, providing them with training. Plus, it’s very important that the children learn the work of fighting in case the big ones all die. They need someone to take their place. Abu agreed that training is important, but said you could train them at the base without actually involving them in conflict (he also completely defended their right to defend themselves.) Obia agreed to cooperate. Then they posed for pictures, Obia surrounded by his child bodyguards in full society dress worn especially for the occasion.
Even if the child rights knowledge is there, it often cannot counteract perceived necessity. An excerpt from an interview with Obia shows this:
SS: So, [The Child Protection NGO] says it’s not a good thing for children to fight, to carry a gun, even for a child to know what a gun is. How do you feel about that?
O: That’s fine. Because, what made us do it, we didn’t know any better (di sabi, nain wi no bin get), you understand. Because, as I told you, we thought that the war wouldn’t end. So, that’s how the war was, we didn’t know that … even soldiers were fighting against us. They all had gone to the bush. So that now, where could we look for defense? So that is why we involved most of the children, to let our number be large, because the RUF’s numbers were large. Because the SLA who we had hoped would defend us, they too had gone to the bush. So that’s why most of [the children], we joined them [into the CDF]. So, anyone who is seven years and up, we joined them. So we could have large numbers.
In this paper, I have sought to provide a deeper answer than one usually finds to the question, “why do fighting factions use child soldiers?” I have touched on social, cultural, and historical factors that help explain the use of child soldiers in Sierra Leone. This doesn’t change the fact that the war was a horrible experience for almost everyone involved, and Sierra Leoneans will be recovering from the trauma of war for decades to come.
We were asked to say something about the possibilities for comparative work. I believe that comparative work, when done poorly, can be dangerous. We must strive to understand each situation without over-generalizing, or worse, judging with respect to a Western model. It is by truly understanding local cultural realities that those of us who want to work for a more peaceful world can begin to work together to stop the practices that we all find horrifying.
To understand childhood in Sierra Leone, one could start with UNICEF data. It paints a picture of a childhood of deprivation, always in distinction to the “ideal” Western childhood. Or we could romanticize it in a kind of Rousseau child-as-noble-savage move. The real challenge is to understand Sierra Leoneans’ as a different model of childhood, which works in its own cultural milieu, without condemning or valorizing. The theoretical danger is an extreme cultural relativism that approves any “traditional” practice for the sake of its traditional-ness. This can be just as insidious as a fanatical devotion to a universal definition of childhood that always finds African childhoods wanting.
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