A new report says at least 300,000 children are currently fighting in wars in more than 40 countries around the world. Some of the children are as young as seven years old. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers released the survey, urging countries to sign and ratify a U.N. treaty barring the use of troops under 18 in combat.
Ishmael Beah was 14 when he was recruited by the Sierra Leone army. His parents had already been killed by rebels, and he says the army urged him to join to avenge their deaths. The army offered food and shelter. Ishmael did not want to be a soldier, but he did not have much choice, he says it was either join, or die.
A spokesman for the human rights group Amnesty International reads a statement written by Ishmael, describing what it was like when he was sent to the front line.
When we got there, there was an ambush, the rebels were attacking where we were in the bush. I did not shoot my gun at first, but when you looked around and saw your schoolmates who were younger than you crying while they were dying and their blood spilling all over you, there was no option but to start pulling the trigger. The sight stays with you. I was just pulling the trigger.
The government of Sierra Leone says it has stopped recruiting child soldiers, but rebel groups continue to kidnap children and force them to fight. And according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, children remain on the front lines in 40 other countries.
The coalition says it is a global problem. More than one-third of the world's child soldiers live in Africa, but it is also a growing problem in Asia. European conflicts including those in the Balkans and the Caucasus have also drawn children into battle. Two bright spots are the Middle East and Latin America, where the coalition says use of child soldiers has declined. Even so, the overall number of child soldiers throughout the world has remained steady.
The coalition also says one-half million children are at risk of being sent into battle if war breaks out in their countries. Some nations, including Angola and Afghanistan, have recruited children from peaceful neighboring countries to help fight their civil wars.
Coalition spokeswoman Judit Arenas says sending children to the front lines takes a heavy toll on their physical and mental health.
"You know the physical exhaustion and the physical side of it, is a very, very heavy burden for a small body to actually bear," she said. "Even more, the psychological scars are worse. You have children who have been taken away from their families, who are missing their mothers their friends, their family, and children who are actually being forced to commit terrible atrocities."
She says in some countries, such as Sierra Leone and Uganda, rebel groups have forced children to go back to their own villages and kill, maim or rape their own family members to ensure their loyalty to the movement, because after that, they can never go home again.
The report says girls who are drafted into service are often used as sex slaves. Ms. Arenas says the rise of HIV and AIDS has ominous implications for them.
"A lot of the girls who are being abducted, and being forced to fight with, for instance, the Lord's Resistance Army [in Uganda] are being used as sex slaves with no protection," she said. "Many of them have actually returned with AIDS, they know of their commanders who have been their partners who have actually had AIDS. And the worst thing is, we are now seeing second generation child solders, children who have actually been born to these girls in captivity, who have never known anything resembling a normal life, but who also have the HIV virus."
Another concern for the coalition is what the use of child soldiers means for other children. Ms. Arenas says whenever any children are used in combat, all children in that area become possible targets.
"Unfortunately, in many of these conflict zones, it is now so common to have units made up specifically of children, that no child's life is safe," she said. "They are considered an object of war, and they are considered a very, very valid target by the opposition."
The report states that the use of child soldiers is not limited to the developing world. Both the United States and Britain recruit 17-year-olds into their armed forces, with parental consent.
The group does not argue that they need to stop recruiting, but it does demand that U.S. and British armed forces keep those young people out of combat. Right now, they say, that is not the case. There are teenagers currently serving as U.S. and British peacekeepers in the Balkans - putting them at risk of death before they are old enough to vote.