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Between 1945 and 1996, there were over 250 major wars, killing more than 23 million people. On an average yearly basis, the number of war deaths in this period was more than double the deaths in the 19th century, and seven times greater than in the 18th century.

War and political upheaval have been tearing whole countries apart - from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Cambodia to Rwanda. And this vortex of violence is sucking in ever larger numbers of children. Entire generations have grown up in the midst of brutal armed conflicts.

Children have, of course, always been caught up in warfare and the trauma of exposure to violence and brutal death has emotionally affected generations of young people for the rest 121f56b of their lives. Recent developments in warfare however have significantly heightened the dangers for children. During the last decade, it is estimated that child victims have included:

2 million killed

4-5 million disabled

12 million left homeless

more than 1 million orphaned or separated from their


some  10 million psychologically traumatised

Most war casualties are civilians. But one of the most deplorable developments in recent years has been the increasing use of young children as soldiers. In one sense, this is not really new. For centuries children have been involved in military campaigns - as child ratings on warships, or as drummer boys on the battlefields of Europe. In 1945 Adolf Hitler called 12-year-old boys from Hitlerjugend to the colours, to fight in defence of Berlin. They had to jump on the enemies' tanks and threw hand-bombs through the slits. Yet, the Stalin's Red Army had plenty of orphan children, that were adopted by soldiers and often used in suicide missions.

What is frightening nowadays is the escalation in the use of  children as fighters. Recently, in 25 countries, thousands of children under the age of 16 have fought in wars. In 1988 alone, they numbered as many as 200.000.

There are a few reasons for this. First of all, the phenomenon has been increasing so much because the nature of the conflict has changed: nowadays the wars fought are prevalently the ethnic, religious and nationalist ones: children are seen as enemies just as the rest of the people they belong to, and the governments think that becouse they are enemies for the others, they can and must fight.

Secondly, many current disputes have lasted a generation or more, and long-drawn-out conflicts requires more and more soldiers day by day: in this sense, children become a valued resource.

Finally, there is the proliferation of light weapons. In the past, children were not particularly effective as front-line fighters since most of the lethal hardware was too heavy and cumbersome for them to manipulate. A child might have been able to wield a sword or a machete but was no match for a similarly armed adult.

However, a child with an assault rifle, a kalashnikov, a Soviet-made AK-47 or an American M-16, is a fearsome match for anyone. These weapons are very simple to use. The AK-47 can be stripped and reassembled by a child of 10. The rifles have also become a much cheaper and more widely available - having few moving parts they are extremely durable and have steadily accumulated in war zones.

Since their introduction in 1947, around 55 million AK-47s have been sold; in one African country, for example, they cost no more than US$6 each. The M-16 is just as ubiquitous, and has been described by one military historian as the "transistor radio of modern warfare".

Besides being able to use lethal weapons, children have other advantages as soldiers. They are easier to intimidate and they do as they are told. They are also less likely than adults to run away and they do not demand salaries. Sometimes child soldiers are used to "clear of mines",it means that they are sent ahead along a suspicious territory and when they survive, these fighters remain disabled for the whole life.

The harshness of military life joins with abuses, violence and cruelty that mark indeliblely the children's soul.

We usually hear about African children used as soldiers, because of the unending re-exploding of the conflicts. But this social evil hits also the other continents, where the endemic poverty is the main carrier of war.

In Africa only, the young children kidnapped and transformed into soldiers are about 120.000 and sometimes as happens in Salvador, Uganda and Etiopia, girls make up 1/3 of them.

In Afghanistan children are the 45% of the all fighters, in Colombia they are unless the 50%. Here, and in almost every country of South America, child soldiers are often in the liberation movements and in the standing armies.

Recently in Uganda and Sierra Leone some child soldiers had had the order of torturing and  killing adults and children, and of destroying their houses. Children are often forced to kill their own parents and relatives, in order to augment their sense of guilt and the reprobation of people: in this way, their return home will be impossible and also, make them orphan means to make them totally dependent by the guerrilla's chiefs.

This is a well-known thing, that many commanders drug the baby-soldiers to make their courage increase: hashish, cocaine, amphetamine and gunpowder are mixed with rice and milk.

The downfall children are brought to, do not concerns them only; as many child soldiers there are, all the more damages in the whole society are serious. Children who have grown up surrounded by violence see this as a permanent way of life: banditry, kidnappings, rapes and violence, drugs abuse, smuggling are the future of those people who learnt from the childhood that a rifle is a mean of subsistence, and weapons enable you to achieve whatever you want. Also, children will have lost any chance of education and professional training.

The recognition that children should be protected from the effects of war is not new. Indeed there are instruments of protection which currently exist. At the base there are the human rights laws which together form a minimum standard of provisions.

Several organisations have also concentrated on providing social rehabilitation assistance to children. In Croatia and in Bosnia a grassroots organisation called Suncrocket has been working with children in refugee camps. Suncrocket volunteers play with children, organise basic school lessons and try to re-create the family atmosphere that the children lost when they were displaced by the war. This hard work helps less than 1% of the refugees. The UNICEF programmes are nearly useless too.

Finally, in Serbia and Montenegro, the Soros Foundation sponsors children's camps, which provide an almost luxurious environment for children for session lasting a number of weeks. Children are able to study, play and generally forget the war. Again, however, these camps reach only small portions of the population and they do not hesitate from helping children to establish a sense of national pride, which without proper guidance when they return home can turn into the ultra-nationalism that fuels the continuation of the war.

It is well known, that providing for a peaceful future for children requires more than merely stopping the current armed conflicts. It requires educating, or perhaps better said, convincing a whole generation of the necessity to settle their disputes peacefully.

Some people think that the war education is all inside our society; the "civilised" countries are not excluded in the use of minor soldiers: the negative record is Great Britain's: there are almost 4500 boys younger than 15 involved in military activities, and this, although they are not allowed to drink, to vote -and they also cannot join the police force!-; Italy, which prohibit the use of under18s soldiers together with almost every European and United States countries, has been selling a huge number of weapons to Kosovo in the last conflicts. Since the childhood, we are used to think that only a fight can make a quarrel up. In the tv movies disagreements are usually terminated by violence, and dialogue does not acknowledge the duality of human nature. The bad guys are usually foreign-sounding or faceless, and women are generally portrayed in subservient roles. Much of this can teach children to behave in dehumanised, aggressive and warlike ways and to values physical strenght, power and violence.

Obviously there are opposite values: in Sweden, for example, war toys are banned. Such a ban can be viewed as reflecting a nonmilitaristic posture and policymakers' efforts to socialise children into such a political philosophy.          


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