“The Social and Cultural Context of Child Soldiering in Sierra Leone”



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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Also, the RUF gave up child soldiers at a greater rate when they were participating in the coalition government (Brooks Unpublished Report).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.

Conclusion


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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1 Following UNICEF’s “Capetown Principles” terminology: “Child soldier” … means any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers, and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members. It includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms (UNICEF 1997: 1).

2 They also report: “There are many “qualitative” analyses of child soldiers and children affected by armed conflict. Despite recounting deeply chilling testimonies from children of their experiences, such analyses often, however, consist of commentary on “apt illustrations.” Although these testimonies are useful, they are seldom put into a framework of analysis of the social organization or systems of meaning that they are expressions of. Thus methodologically sound anthropological analyses are very rare (but see Honwana 2001)” (Pederson 2001: 14).

3 I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone for two years before the war (1987-1989), and was therefore familiar with the context and fluent in Krio, the national lingua franca. I returned to Sierra Leone in October 1999 and was evacuated in May 2000. I returned again in September 2000 until October 2001. A brief evaluation project took me back to Sierra Leone in January 2002, in time to see the official declaration of peace by the President. Fieldwork was generously supported by a grant from the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Dissertation write-up was funded by the American Association of University Women, the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

4 In addition to these general treatises, in Africa there has been country specific work on child soldiers in Mozambique (Gibbs 1994; Thompson 1999; Honwana 1999; West 2000), Angola (Wessells and Monteiro 2000), Uganda (Ehrenreich 1998), Liberia (David-Toweh 1998; Peters 2000; Utas 2003), and Sierra Leone (de la Soudiere 2002; Shepler 2003; Krech 2003; Shepler 2004). There is also recent interest in the special problems of girl child soldiers (McKay 1998; Mazurana and McKay 2001; Keairns 2002; McKay and Mazurana 2004).

5 They usually all also note that the phenomenon is not new, and that child soldiers existed in the United States and Europe for centuries before the rise of modern childhoods.

6 Urdal finds no evidence for the claim made by Samuel P. Huntington that youth bulges above a certain ‘critical level’ make countries especially prone to conflict. He does provide evidence, however, that the combination of youth bulges and poor economic performance can be explosive.

7 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers website, http://www.child-soldiers.org, accessed August 1, 2004.

8 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers website, http://www.child-soldiers.org, accessed August 1, 2004.

9 Human Rights Watch website on the issue of child soldiers, http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/crp/index.htm, accessed August 1, 2004.

10 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers website, http://www.child-soldiers.org, accessed August 1, 2004.

11 Human Rights Watch website on the issue of child soldiers, http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/crp/index.htm, accessed August 1, 2004.

12 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers website, http://www.child-soldiers.org, accessed August 1, 2004.

13 Eventually, there were different groups of “hunters” for different ethnicities, together making up the CDF. The first were the Tamaboro of the Kuranko ethnic group, then there were the Kamajohs of the Mende, the Donsos of the Limba, and the Kapras (later renamed Gbethis) of the Temne.

14 The actual number of children within the ranks of the fighting forces in Sierra Leone is impossible to calculate. For planning purposes, based on approximate numbers submitted by the factions, the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (NCDDR) estimated there would be 45,000 combatants to disarm. Of these 12 percent or 5400 were forecast to be children. Few now dispute that this percentage is a gross under-estimate (Brooks Unpublished Report). UNICEF Sierra Leone later came up with the estimate of 7000, and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers estimates 10,000.

15 Regarding the comparative aspect, much of what I am saying will apply in the Mano River Union States of Liberia and Guinea as well. The analysis may also be useful in the Great Lakes region (The Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi) where Peters, Richards and Vlassenroot point out that the conflict bears many similarities to the West African conflicts with respect to the sub-politics of youth (2003: 13). The point is to start from the bottom up, rather than making grand prescriptions from the outset.

16 For a discussion of the specific problems of girl soldiers in Sierra Leone, see my article “Les Filles-Soldats: Trajectoires d'apres-guerre en Sierra Leone” (Shepler 2002). (See also McKay and Mazurana 2004; Bah 1997).

17 In Sierra Leone, an infant or toddler “
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