Where: Sierra Leone, Africa
August 5, 2000: A child is recognised everywhere as a symbol of innocence. Those who fight wars know this fact. And the more brutal among them use this knowledge to do the most terrible thing. They force children to fight the wars that they have started.
This is what the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) does in the West African country of Sierra Leone. The title of the group suggests that it is performing heroic acts. What it actually does is just the opposite. It begins its attacks on government forces by sending waves of children in front. The idea is to unnerve the opponents. And the children come directly in the line of their gunfire.
The mature adults stay behind – their survival instincts are strong. But they have another impressive sounding name for it – political and war strategy.
Sierra Leone has lately been in the news for a war that seems to never end. For years the RUF has been fighting the forces of government. In the last couple of months, the United Nations (UN) sent in its peace-keeping force into the country. Consisting of soldiers from various countries, the force was led by an Indian, Major General Vijay Kumar Jetley.
What shook the Indian soldiers was the fact that the frontline of the RUF always consisted of children. They were not prepared for such a reality. It was a tactic of the RUF to throw the peacekeeping force off-guard. A peace-keeping force is supposed to just maintain peace. Its rules do not permit it to take the first step in fighting. The last two months were full of crisis for the peace-keeping force when the RUF took hostage more than 20 Indian soldiers, who escaped much later.
It is said that the RUF began in 1991 when tribes which lived in the far flung areas of Sierra Leone felt the need to protest their ill-treatment at the hands of the richer sections of society.
But somewhere along the way, the RUF forgot what it started out to do. Greed is the factor that characterizes the fight for power in Sierra Leone today. The fight for power is all about the fight for areas, which have some of the richest diamond mines in the African continent. The diamonds continue to be smuggled out through the neighbouring county of Liberia. In fact many say that the RUF is now controlled by a Liberian by the name of Charles Taylor whose main interest lies in the diamond fields under RUF control. The fields are believed to generate $ 300 million in revenue.
The RUF is one of the world’s most hated armies today. Mainly because of what it has done to the children.
It has forced the children into unimaginable situations of killing or seeing killings – even children as young as eight or nine. The fact that children can easily carry the light weapons that are mostly used in internal wars has created a terrible situation for the children. If they do not do as the RUF says they can lose their lives after seeing many others killed.
A recent report in ‘The Telegraph’ described the state of a group of children who had escaped the RUF and come to a surrender camp for refuge. They could not take war any more. Two of the child soldiers were 16 years old. They had been soldiers since they were seven years old. And they had done nothing but kill at the orders of the RUF since then. They were illiterate, orphaned and utterly, utterly weary.
“They want to surrender because their huts have been burnt down, they have no food and they have nothing to show for all these years,” said their interpretor. They knew only one language, the tribal language Mende.
The RUF has no intentions of ending the war. Why should it, when it can use all these children to fight it? “If I lose 10 men, so what? I just grab 50 children from a village and force them to join me. Maybe, 10 will die, maybe 20 will run away. But I will have 20 new men at the end of it,” an RUF rebel is said to have told an Indian peace-keeping soldier.
The RUF army is well-organised. There are six brigades, headquartered in Makeni, a northern town of Sierra Leone. Each brigade in turn has five battalions or military units of 1,000 men each. It organises men further in squads of 12 to 15 men. As adults die, more and more children are brought in to make up the numbers – first of the live and then of the dead.
Today, there is a worldwide protest by people’s organizations against the use of child soldiers by guerrilla groups – be it the RUF in Sierra Leone, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, the many rebel groups in South America, or the dictatorial regime in Myanmar, formerly Burma.
A little over 10 years ago the United Nations framed a charter of children’s rights. Among the rights that nobody can take away from a child are the right to the loving care of the family, the right to education, health and play, the right not to work or labour during childhood, and the right not to be part of armies and fighting operations before turning 18.
Of course not all countries have signalled their acceptance of this document by signing on it. That shows the attitude of most governments all over the world. It creates a gray area where brutal armed groups can play with children’s lives and their minds, and get away with it. The only thing that can keep pace with their brutality is the blank eyes and hidden nightmares of the child soldiers.