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Toy soldiers
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 child's play.
"The 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.

International protection

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 through confession.

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 other monkeys.

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 conflict.

"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
Jessica Barry is a press officer in the Federation's media service.

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