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VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Children on the frontlines
May 29, 2010
By Ruth Fertig
“When you become a soldier, your soul changes. It is like dying today and being reincarnated into another life.”
What a strong statement about war. Its impact becomes a thousand times more powerful, though, when you can hear and see the speaker instead of just reading his words. That’s because his voice hasn’t even deepened yet, and he looks to be no older than fourteen – he’s just a boy.
His name is Pierre,* and he’s one of several demobilized child soldiers interviewed for “On the Frontlines: Child Soldiers in the DRC,” a short film the IRC screened recently as part of its year-long series of events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The film, which was produced by Ajedi-Ka in collaboration with WITNESS, features footage shot between 2003 and 2004 in the South Kivu area of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The images and stories are jarring in their incongruity to an idealized vision of childhood – one boy carries a gun as tall as himself; another young girl who has likely been forced into the role of a commander’s “wife” stares blankly into the camera; a baby-voiced kid speaks of how his best friend (whose name, fittingly, was Innocent) was killed when his head was crushed during fighting.
It’s remarkable how much the children in the film have endured. The documentary begins, in fact, with Pierre recounting one of the most disturbing stories I’ve heard. His group captured a child soldier and maimed him in increasingly torturous ways until, as Pierre put it matter-of-factly, “we took out his heart, and he died.” I was struck most not by the horrifying description of how some young boys inflicted so much suffering on another young boy, but by the simple black and white truth of that final statement. No matter how precious life is, no matter how senseless the act, and no matter how young and guiltless the child, if you take a person’s heart out, he or she will die.
The lives – and deaths – of these young soldiers, often as young as 8 years old, runs counter not only to basic human rights but also to international humanitarian law. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets forth legally binding international guidelines for the protection and rights of children. It explicitly bans the recruitment of children under fifteen as soldiers, and a subsequent Optional Protocol increases safeguards for children under eighteen. Though Congo has adopted the Convention, child soldiers are still being recruited.
The IRC has worked in Congo on reintegration of children formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups. We are currently supporting the protection of children in Congo through community child protection networks.
We’re also working to strengthen the Convention’s weight. Only two nations in the world have yet to join the global community in ratifying the agreement: the United States and Somalia (though the United States has ratified both of the Convention’s Optional Protocols). The IRC is engaged in advocacy efforts asking the United States government to ratify the Convention. You can add your voice by signing our petition urging President Obama to take action for children’s rights.
“On the Frontlines” is available for screening on Witness’s Hub.
*not his real name
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