Today's conflicts are smaller in scale than the world wars on which we normally focus come Remembrance Day. But tragically, so are many of the soldiers. There are some 250,000 child soldiers in the world today, mostly in Africa. Most are forcibly conscripted by both rebel groups and government forces alike, for use in civil conflicts. Children the age of my school-aged sons are shoved headlong into a hell that's unimaginable for most adults, let alone a child.
"I lay there, with my gun pointed in front of me, unable to shoot," writes former child soldier Ishmael Beah, of his first day as a soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war. After being made to play soccer with the other boys to entertain their lieutenant one morning, the children were suited up and sent into the woods for a skirmish with the enemy. That's the afternoon Beah's childhood ended.
"There was blood everywhere," he wrote, in his memoir. "It seemed as if bullets were falling into the forest from all angles. I crawled to (my friend) Josiah and looked into his eyes. There were tears in them and his lips were shaking, but he could not speak. As I watched him, the water in his eyes was replaced with blood that quickly turned his brown eyes into red."
The horror of watching a dear friend die in battle is something that most Second World War veterans remember to this day. I recall stories my Grandad told me of his years as a soldier fighting in the desert of northern Africa. He was a young father at the time, not a young boy like Ishmael Beah. Grandad had lived far more of life than Ishmael had before heading to war. He was psychologically and emotionally tougher. Still, Grandad's memory of helplessly watching a dying friend was seared on his soul. And he never got over it, not really.
After the war, Grandad returned to his hometown to work in a bank, raise three children, and love 10 grandchildren as though his heart were still in one piece. But for decades, he awoke in the night crying out and covered with sweat, having dreamed of the man whose eyes had glazed over as he lay in the sand.
It's too much for an adult, let alone a young boy or girl. Especially when watching friends die is but one of the horrific events in the daily life of a child soldier.
As we honour those who served in the world wars this Remembrance Day, let's not forget the children who are fighting to keep body and soul together in conflicts around the world today. Recent reports from South Sudan indicate that child soldiers have been used in its ongoing civil war. Children fleeing from their communities in the turmoil can become separated from parents, and are easy pickings for armed groups needing reinforcements.
What happens to a child who is conscripted, as is eventually released or rescued? The process of healing and restoration is a long and difficult one. In addition to the unspeakable trauma of what they've experienced, children have usually been brainwashed to believe in the cause for which they were fighting. They can be suspicious of those trying to help.
Reuniting children with those they love can also be very tough. When conscripted, children are sometimes made to kill or maim a family member, break their bonds with family and community. Sometimes, no one wants the child back again.
Organizations like World Vision have centres for child soldiers, where they can live before returning to life in a community. During that time they receive extensive counselling, education, and training for a job if they're older. World Vision works with children's families helping rebuild broken bonds, or helps former soldiers settle in new communities.
You can help a child soldier, by making a donation through the World Vision Gift Catalogue. I have done this for several of the veterans in my life, in honour of the sacrifice they themselves have made. Perhaps I'll do it again this year, in memory of my Grandad. Although he couldn't save that one young man, he can surely help save another.
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