One of the dirty secrets about many of the world's conflicts is that, in many cases, children and teenagers are forcibly recruited to do much of the fighting. Saji Prelis, the director of the Peace-building Institute at American University in Washington, D.C., says that the brutal reality of child soldiers is it's a common thing in many, many countries. In fact 300,000 children have been recruited around the world.
Prelis says this crime against humanity has been going on for at least a decade -- and in many cases, continues -- in more than 36 countries: Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Colombia, Paraguay, and Guatemala.
Two million children have been killed in conflict in the last ten years, he says. Over one million have been orphaned. Over six million, seriously injured and permanently disabled. Over ten million, left with serious psychological trauma.
In Uganda, where a civil war is more than 20 years old and young people make up 40 percent of the population, abducted children and teenagers largely comprise rebel militias led by notorious warlord Joseph Kony. Prelis says children who manage to evade abduction are always on the run.
"They're called the 'night commuters,'" Prelis says. "Young people have to run away every night. They cannot stay in their homes because Kony's army will come and abduct them to force them to join the rebel group. To save their lives, what they do is run away at night and hide in church grounds, ditches, and alleys. That's where they sleep, so they don't get kidnapped. In the daytime, they are street children, or working or running around, just so they don't get abducted."
In the aftermath of some of these conflicts, international humanitarian groups have stepped in to help young war veterans start a new life.
Michael Wessels, a child protection specialist with the non-denominational private aid group, the Christian Children's Fund, says his organization has developed a systematic plan for the children's recovery. "On a very basic level, there has to be some emotional support provided to the children and meeting of basic needs, such as health care and basic hygiene," he says. "Typically, children come out of armed groups with problems such as substance abuse and unruliness. They can be quite aggressive. If they don't learn some skills on getting along with people in non-violent ways, that can be a setup for failure."
Wessels has visited communities in more than 20 war-torn countries, where young people, who make up a large part of the population, were forced to fight and find themselves now shunned in their home communities.
After the end of the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone, Wessels met with many village elders. He says the vast majority he talked with said, "'We remember this boy or girl very well. He or she was with the rebel group that burned our villages and killed our brothers and sisters. And we don't think they're fit to return. They live like animals.'" But he says after going through a process with the community members to build empathy, "showing the children had been subjected to a mixture of brainwashing and extreme poverty and lack of hope," reconciliation can begin. "There can be dialogues for negotiation about: 'What would it take for the young person to come back and be like us?'"
Michael Wessels of the Christian Children's Fund witnessed a village healing ritual involving a teenage war veteran -- and a village chief.
"The boy laid himself face down on the ground, extended his hand out in front of him and held the chief's ankle. So he is demonstrating extreme submission," Wessels recalls. "While he is in that position, the chief asked him to tell his entire story, everything he had done and how he felt about it. Apparently the chief knew what had gone on, and he was watching to see if the boy was truthful, remorseful, and willing to try to turn the corner and enter civilian life. In this particular case, the judgment was positive. The chief assigned him an adult mentor, who served as a moral tutor, and he was assigned community service, helping people farm. In the process, the village began to see the boy not as a predator or troublemaker, but as someone who had potential."
Wessels says that his group and other aid workers have found that the children and adults seem to respond better and reconcile faster through these indigenous spiritual rituals rather than traditional Western psychotherapy counseling sessions.
"Many times in many countries like Angola and Mozambique, children say they're not suffering depression or trauma, but a spiritual affliction," Wessels says. He recalls an Angolan boy who was having nightmares and could not sleep. "I asked him why. He said, 'That man I killed. His spirit came in the night and said why did you do this to me?' So it's terribly important to be able to think about how children have been affected by their soldiering experiences, not through a Western lens, but thinking through a local cultural lens."
Wessels strikes a hopeful note. He says most of these children manage to find their way back into civilian society one way or another.
Saji Prelis of the Peacebuilding Institute at American University gives a lot of the credit to the young war veterans, themselves, who, he says, have survived war and have developed a resiliency that will serve the cause of peace and reconstruction.