by Jessica Barry
Children, whether combatants or displaced
by the fighting, require help to resume a normal life.
Some 300,000 child soldiers are fighting in over 30 countries,
Human Rights Watch estimates. Most have been abducted or
forcibly conscripted by armies or rebel groups. Once a
conflict ends, how can these children reintegrate into the
community? For the Mozambique Red Cross, the answer was
bandits killed my mother, and my brothers too," Alfredo,
one young boy who was abducted told Neil Boothby from the US
Committee for Refugees. "They took me to their base
camp.... I had a gun. The chief taught me how to use it. He
beat me up. I had a gun to kill. I killed people and soldiers.
I didn't like it..."
In the aftermath of armed conflicts, children need
extensive psychological and practical support. For child
soldiers, it is vital they receive counselling and assistance
so they can eventually rejoin their families and communities.
However, singling them out for special attention may prove
counter-productive. It was a lesson that Mozambique Red Cross
Society (MRCS) staff quickly discovered when a peace accord
ended 16 years of civil war in Mozambique in 1992.
Although the recent adoption of an Optional Protocol to the United
Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child sets conditions on the
participation of adolescents in active combat, it is unlikely to halt the
forced conscription or abduction of under-age soldiers into rebel groups,
and even into some regular armies. Sierra Leone, Angola, Colombia and
Afghanistan are just a few examples where scant regard is given to the
minimum legal age limit of 15 for army recruitment. Advances in military
technology, resulting in a proliferation of cheap, lightweight automatic
weapons, mean that even young children can handle such guns with ease.
Widespread evidence shows that young conscripts, girls as well as boys,
are often tortured, beaten, given shock training or made to commit
atrocities, often against their families, to condition them for front-line
service. Many are routinely given drugs before going into battle, to make
them 'brave'. Others serve as porters, cooks, runners and spies. Often they
are sexually abused. And all this despite the special protection afforded to
children in time of war under Articles 38 and 39 of the UN Convention on the
Rights of the Child, and by no less than 25 articles in the Geneva
Conventions and their two 1977 Additional Protocols.
A community-based approach
"The international media, psychiatrists and other Western medical
experts all descended on a group of former child soldiers living in an
institution," remembers Frieda Draisma, head of social welfare
programmes for the MRCS in Maputo. "The traumatized youngsters felt
they were being singled out as case studies, which was very damaging."
This negative experience prompted the MRCS, the ministry of education
(MINED) and the ministry for the coordination of social action (MICAS) to
refocus their rehabilitation programmes for war-affected children.
Reintegrating child soldiers, boys and girls, into the family and community,
instead of sending them to institutions, was found to be the best way to
ensure no one was marginalized or stigmatized.
A community-based approach was therefore adopted, involving village and
church leaders, teachers, traditional healers and Red Cross activists.
Healers played a key role in the rehabilitation process. Believed to be a
link between communities and their guardian spirit ancestors, they held
purification ceremonies to cleanse the children of their past. These
ceremonies were an essential step towards accepting the child back into the
community. Rural families would normally make sure their returning children
would take part in rituals which included taking medicine, bathing in water
treated with special herbs, inhaling smoke from burning roots, and periods
of isolation. Church leaders, too, played a role by making children talk
about their experiences in front of the congregation, or to a group of
church elders, as a way of re-establishing contact with their community
With millions of people displaced from their homes by the war, this was
no easy task. In a vast tracing operation, the MRCS, with the ICRC, the
government's social welfare department and various NGOs, reunited tens of
thousands of separated former child soldiers and other war-traumatized
children with their families.
Healing through play
Recognizing that laughter and role-play are two vital elements in any healing
process, MRCS social workers established a far-reaching rehabilitation
programme called Brincar curando ("healing through
play") in 1993. The project's aim was simple - to enable
children affected by war and violence to regain self-respect
and confidence, using play and group work to help them overcome
their bad experiences.
Brincar curando used dance, drama, puppet shows, drawing
and storytelling to achieve its objective, as well as sports
and games. One children's book written specifically for the
project entitled O Macaquinho Zangado ("The angry
monkey") featured a monkey as the main character. In
the story, the animal is determined not to show his feelings
of fear to anyone. He dreams of being like the lion, which
seems to be afraid of nothing and nobody. Then he learns that
the lion, too, is sometimes afraid. The lion explains that
fear is like a disease, which must be conquered. The monkey
goes on to overcome his terror and become friends with the
The project began in six provinces, and was expanded to others later on.
Red Cross volunteers, some of whom were themselves former
child soldiers, were given training on Brincar curando's
principles and working methods, and led the various activities.
It was as much a therapy for them as it was for the other
participants. Initially intended for youngsters up to 12 years,
the age limit was raised as the programme's success spread,
to allow teenagers to join in. Family members, traditional
healers and local church and community leaders participated
wherever possible in the programme.
However, getting results often took time. Rosa, a young mother and one of
the project's trainers, described her work with a boy of 10, traumatized by
"He was aggressive, and beat up the little ones. We asked him why he
did those things, but he said he didn't know. I couldn't talk to him in the
presence of others, but when I saw him by himself I would try to approach
him... In the beginning he always ran away. Then I would take something to
eat and call him. It took a month for him not to be afraid of me."
A human rights violation
Mozambique's former First Lady, Graça Machel, wrote in her report to the
UN on the impact of war on children: "War violates every right of a
child - the right to life, the right to be with family and community, the
right to health, the right to the development of the personality, and the
right to be nurtured and protected."
With the signing of the 1992 peace accord, Mozambique turned its back on
a war that had violated all those rights, and had made it the poorest
country in the world. Today, after eight years of peace and economic
progress, it is one of Africa's rare successes. Above all, policies are in
place to ensure the welfare of children at risk, recognizing their rights
both in peacetime and in war.
Jessica Barry is a press officer in the Federation's media service.
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