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Why Are Child Soldiers Romanticized?

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CHILD SOLDIERS
AP File

One minute of reflective silence has already been drowned out by the din of everyday life.

In the wake of Remembrance Day, we're still immersed in thoughts of how our culture commemorates war -- how "In Flanders Fields" was recited in hushed tones during our school assemblies. How our teachers conquered a classroom's apathy for history with stories of kids our own age who had been killed on the front lines.

The youngest known British soldier to serve in the First World War was 12 years old, too short to see over the edge of a trench.

Hollywood has immortalized underage soldiers -- and romanticized their bravery -- in countless films: the scrawny 15-year-old who fudged his birth date on the enlistment forms to fight illegally in the Great War. Cut to a scene of the same kid awkwardly cradling a machine gun, draped in oversized fatigues.
Contemporary warfare is still fuelled by "the brave young men and women overseas." This phrase has become part of a narrative that honours the heroes who gave up their youth to shed blood for their country.

Tragically, children in war zones are neither romantic nor relegated to the past.

Lest we forget the children around the world who are forced to fight like soldiers, we should confront the hard truth: some recruits have no choice.

Michel Chikwanine was five years old when he was abducted by rebel soldiers from a soccer field behind his school in the eastern Congo town of Beni, and driven deep into the jungle. The rebels scoffed at pleas for his family. "This is your family now," he was told. Then they cut his wrists, rubbed a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder into his open wounds, shoved an AK-47 in his hands and blindfolded him. Frantic with the volatile drug throbbing in his veins, Chikwanine obeyed the orders to take aim at an unknown target and "shoot, shoot -- shoot!" He opened his eyes. His best friend Kevin was dead on the ground in front of him.

Chikwanine escaped the soldiers a few weeks later, only to endure years of conflict and violence that defile his country to this day, and has claimed the lives of 5.8 million people. Chikwanine fled to Uganda, and eventually headed to Canada in 2004. Now the 23-year-old is a University of Toronto student, peace activist, inspirational speaker and spokesperson for all of the children who've been robbed of their voices, for the Vow of Silence campaign.

"I'm taking the vow as a war-affected child," says Chikwanine. "There are still so many children affected by war in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] who don't have a voice. In a way, I'm standing up for them."

On Nov. 30, three weeks after honouring our fallen soldiers and armed forces -- Chikwanine and young people around the world will stand up for children. Students, teachers, schools and youth groups in cities from Toronto to Beijing to Jakarta will take a vow to remain quiet, in solidarity with the children silenced by poverty and exploitation all over the world. The silence, a fundraising and awareness-raising initiative, is a reminder that our voices are part of a freedom that is often taken for granted.

Seventeen-year-old Samantha Honig has pledged not to talk, text, tweet or use Facebook for 24 hours. The Calgary native recently graduated from high school, and is now working to save money for university. She admits staying silent will be difficult, especially since she'll have to avoid talking to customers at the children's clothing store where she works as much as possible.

"It will be hard. People will ask, 'Why aren't you talking to me?' and I'll have to explain without talking." Samantha's silence will carry a powerful message. She's printed out cards to distribute to people who approach her. One of her cards reads "In Kenya, 26 per cent of children age five to 14 are child labourers."
Samantha explained that giving her voice to the voiceless will prove that "one person can make a difference." By raising awareness to the horrific conditions endured by the world's children--hunger, thirst, child labour, war, she hopes her silence will inspire others to take action against these atrocities. For Samantha, taking the vow means "making people aware."

That's how Chikwanine got his voice back, by making people aware. As a motivational speaker, he's shared his story with more than 100,000 people worldwide, fighting ignorance and leaving audiences inspired to help children, like himself, who've been caught in the machinations of war.

As we put away our poppies, we're still thinking about the power of silence. And putting it to work.

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