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Red Hand Day — What I learned from children carrying Kalashnikovs

There are more than 250,000 child soldiers around the world. 12 February is Red Hand Day. The initiative is an international campaign to stop the use of child soldiers. Rampeoane Hlobo, a Jesuit priest ministering in Cape Town and greatly involved with the plight of refugees and migrants, has had first-hand experience of child soldiers, in South Sudan. Here, he tells the story of innocent children forced to fight and kill in adult wars.

Nineteen years ago, I met a twelve-year-old boy who asked me if I had a Kalashnikov (AK-47). When I told him that I did not, he could not believe what he was hearing. At the time, I was working for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Nimule, South Sudan, in one of their programmes for Internally Displaced People (IDP).

The boy was even more shocked and scandalised, when I revealed that I had never owned a pistol nor pulled the trigger on any weapon. Concluding his interrogation he asked me what kind of a man I was, at my age, having never owned an AK-47, or even a pistol, nor pulled a trigger, in my entire life. For him, in his tender sub-teen years it was incomprehensible a man not to have a gun. Still, more shocking was to never have fired at someone.

In Nimule, I was in daily contact with both active and retired “veteran” child-soldiers. My eyes were repeatedly opened to the evil and immoral practice of forcing children to fight — and kill — in adult wars.

I was not only confronted by the reality of a childhood lost; I also came to know the devastating psychological impact of recruiting children to be machines of war. The tragic victims were the young, prematurely forced onto the battlefields. Children order to shoot and kill, over and over again, at the insistence of adults. They would carry Kalashnikovs — which stood barely shorter than them — with a terrifying sense of power and authority as they patrolled the villages.

Child soldiers are defined as children below the age of eighteen years who have either been recruited, conscripted, abducted or coerced by states, non-state armed groups and militia to be, among other things, used as fighters, cooks, suicide bombers, human shields — and for sexual favours. Some of these children are already born into the armed groups.

In Africa alone, there are at least nine countries in which children are still used in armed conflicts, either by state forces or non-state armed groups. There are five more African countries owhere the situation with regard to the recruitment of children remains unclear.

It is common practice for children to be conscripted or abducted into armed groups, as in the cases of the Chibok school girls in Nigeria who were abducted by Boko Haram in April 2014, and in the case of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda during the 1980s.

Still, many other children suffer the same terrible fate, having been indoctrinated and lured into armed forces with promises of education and status, money and security. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alone, between 2003 and 2004, there were about ten militia groups operating in one region. More than 35% of the child soldiers in these groups were “voluntarily” recruited.

Tackling the problem is not easy. Many of these groups using children or child soldiers in armed conflicts, referred to as “non-state actors”, are anti-government rebels and militia. They are, therefore, not easily accessible and operate in areas difficult to reach.

Despite the international legal framework and legislation in place for the protection of the rights of children, such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OPAC), the problem persists.

Today, there are reports that more than 250,000 children are still used in wars as soldiers.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have for some years been involved in campaigns to highlight the plight of child soldiers and children involved in armed conflicts.

One such campaign is the popularly known Red Hand Day. 12 February is commemorated annually as Red Hand Day to draw attention to the plight of children used by adults to fight and support their wars.

The day also celebrates OPAC, which entered into force on this day as a legal instrument fortifying the protection of children and a way of preventing their use in armed conflicts. Today, the 168 signatory countries to OPAC have raised the minimum age for direct engagement in or participation in hostilities and wars to 18 years. This is a major improvement on the Convention for the Rights of the Child (CRC) which holds 15 years as the minimum age for child soldiers.

OPAC and Red Hand Day celebrations remind us that children should be allowed to be children — and are not to be used to fight adult wars. Wars are bad enough on their own. We cannot use children as tools for settling violent conflicts between adults.    

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Rampeoane Hlobo SJ
Rampeoane is a Jesuit priest working on migration issues in Southern Africa. He was previously parish priest at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Nyanga, Cape Town. Born and bred in Orlando, Soweto, he spent a number of years studying Social Sciences, Philosophy, Forced Migration and Theology. After his ordination, Rampe worked at Holy Trinity parish in downtown Johannesburg. He has also worked with both Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and urban refugees in Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) projects in South Sudan, Northern Uganda, London and South Africa. He is currently a member of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC) Migration group and the Africa representative in the Global Ignatian Advocacy Network (GIAN) Migration group.

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