Reclaiming Their Youth

Though recruiting children to serve in armed forces may violate the average person’s sensibilities, military organizations as well as non-state opposition groups in war-ravaged areas of the world often do just that, in many instances abducting youngsters from their families and forcing them to take up arms.

Michael Wessells has dedicated his life to transitioning these child soldiers away from the violence and into peaceful, age-appropriate civilian roles. In his book Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection (2006), he urges the public not to view these children as damaged goods but as potential contributors to society. Wessells is professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University, and senior advisor on child protection for Christian Children’s Fund.

Vision’s Michelle Steel spoke with him about his important work and about the challenges faced by these boys and girls whose childhood has been cut short.


MS How did your involvement with child soldiers begin?

MW About 20 years ago I started working on issues of youth and violence. I had done some work in Palestine, where I encountered more than a few young people who had been arrested, detained or tortured, or had brothers or sisters who had. Those experiences led me to understand that in most of the conflict situations in the world today you have cycles of violence. It’s not like there is a war that has a well-defined starting and ending point. About half of the armed conflicts going on at any point in time (and typically there are between 25 and 40) run 10 years or more. That means that whole generations grow up with violence and armed conflict as part of their daily reality. At that point I hadn’t really made the effort to help break the cycles of violence in terms of reorienting political socialization and creating alternate life opportunities for children. But we won’t get a handle on breaking these cycles until we do just that. So I decided to start helping children get out of armed groups and transition into civilian life, while also working on prevention.

Around the mid-’90s I began working with Christian Children’s Fund in Angola, which had been torn by nearly 40 years of civil war. Quite a number of children had been drawn into armed groups by both the government and UNITA, the opposition group. As we got involved, we realized that it’s enormously complex, but we found that by developing a certain set of elements and processes, we could help.

MS What are some of these elements?

MW The majority of Western-trained clinical psychologists look at children who have been abducted and forced to kill, or who witness killings and tortures and bombings, and they tend to think primarily about posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and related afflictions. While those might apply directly to some children, and particularly to people in Western society, they miss some of the most important aspects in developing countries.

For example, in Angola there was one 14-year-old boy who showed many signs of posttraumatic stress disorder, but who said the reason he could not sleep was that the spirit of the man he had killed came to him and asked, “Why did you do this to me?” In his belief system, he was haunted by an angry spirit that could cause imminent harm to him, his family and his community. This was surely not the kind of problem that could be addressed by counseling or any kind of Western therapy. So we went to work with the local healers. We realized that local resources were available and ought to be used in order to help aid reintegration.

Another element that is really important is family reunification. The vast majority of children who have been recruited, though not all, have been separated from their families. So that requires a lot of work on identification, documentation and tracing.

MS Can you explain some of the challenges that poses?

MW There is difficult geography, the roads are bad, there are lots of landmines—security and logistics pose grave problems. Perhaps the newly established political administration is fragile. But reintegrating children with their families is a terribly important psychosocial and protection intervention, because almost all the evidence is that children who are in the care of functional, caring parents tend to do better both psychologically and in terms of the safety of their lives. Western psychologists might be thinking about all kinds of therapy, but in fact family reunification is fundamental. The difficulty, however, is that sometimes young people come out of armed groups having been made commanders, having made life-and-death decisions.

MS So the transition requires a complete identity change.

MW Yes, in many cases children take on a military identity and their values become very different from the values of civilian life. Often there is an acceptance of violence as a means of settling and handling a conflict. So you can have situations where a 14-year-old boy or girl comes home and the parent expects obedience and deference, but the young people aren’t ready to extend it. The result is a lot of conflict. The family reintegration process requires, in many cases, family mediation. We need to have people there who are trained and who can help parents understand that when the young person comes home, it’s not going to be like it was before. Some of the things they see, such as aggressive tendencies, are normal reactions for children with experience inside armed groups, and it doesn’t mean that they are a lost generation or damaged goods. They have credible issues to deal with.

MS What can you do to help them deal with these issues?

MW In almost every war zone abducted children cite as one of their biggest losses the fact that they were deprived of education. They ask, “How can I be a good parent, a contributing member of society? How can I have a future if I don’t have any education?” These young people were typically pulled out of school at a very young age, and they may have spent 8 or 10 years in an armed group. Yet the formal education system may ask a 15- or 16-year-old girl or boy who has a third-grade education to sit beside someone who is 9 or 10. And they won’t do that; it’s humiliating. One of the things that has been very useful is the development of accelerated-learning programs that are constructed specifically for older children. We work with teachers but also with villagers and young people themselves to create these programs.

Another related tool is literacy. Even if you don’t have a full education program, the ability to read and write, and maybe to acquire some basic numeracy skills, is tremendously important to young people who want to be able to start a business, start a family, earn a living, and be part of a proper community.

Last but not least, livelihood is an enormously important element, because to change your identity from military to civilian requires that you have a role.

MS How do you help them discover their new role, their new livelihood?

MW If you view yourself as a military person, you may think, “There is nothing for me back in civilian life. What can I do? I don’t have any means of earning money. I am nothing, a nobody. If anything, I’m a troublemaker.” That is a real impediment to integration into civilian life. So they need a means of earning an income to provide basic needs, to avoid humiliation and enable them to get on with life. This typically includes mentoring in the kinds of skills young people might want to learn. A market analysis is usually done to try to identify what the local economy will support. And then there are master artisans who not only teach basic skills in whatever vocational line the children are learning, but who also provide moral tutelage to guide young people and help them understand what is expected of them in their communities.

MS In your book you say that “mentoring is a potent means of enabling youths to negotiate their new identities and to transition from one moral universe into another.” So it’s more than just the trades that they’re learning; they’re learning values.

MW Yes. In Sierra Leone, young people participated in work crews that built community-selected projects: a school, a health clinic—something that helped the children of their community. But as they worked, people began to see them in a different light. It wasn’t just that they were working and earning money, it was that they were giving back something to the community. People began to see them not as soldiers but as civilians who could make a meaningful contribution to the village. When other people see you in that light, it begins to change your own identity. In other words, there is a reciprocal relationship between one’s own identity and how other people view you.

So young people are acquiring the skills, values and behaviors needed to enter new social roles. And as they enter those roles they begin a process of redefining themselves. In the majority of collectivist societies, where most of the armed conflicts occur, identity is defined by social relations—your relationship to the group and to other people. To have the respect of other people, a sense of place in one’s village and one’s family, a sense of respect and dignity—those things are profoundly important. That’s what enables the shift of identity. But it’s not something that happens overnight. As a matter of fact, when young people come out of armed groups, they sometimes get angry with adults who expect them to change overnight. That’s an understandable reaction. It’s not like you can just turn on a dime and somehow find yourself back in school and on track with the way things were. In many ways you can’t go back. You have to reconstruct yourself, and it’s difficult.

MS Can you identify the most challenging aspect of that reconstruction?

MW Probably the biggest single source of distress for most child soldiers that I’ve worked with is the fact that when they return home they are isolated; they are called rebels and troublemakers. That is very painful, and it’s also very threatening, because sometimes people not only call them rebels but will engage in reprisal attacks and say, “We remember very well what your armed group did when you came through this village, and we’re going to get you back.” We have to work on reconciliation and nonviolent conflict resolution so that divisions within the community don’t erupt into violence. There is a shattering of the social bonds that tie communities together; it’s each person against the other.

MS So how are we doing on the child-soldier crisis worldwide? Are these programs making a difference?

MW I think we are making progress. We have had an effective prosecution and conviction of people in Sierra Leone on charges of having recruited children. The Charles Taylor case is important, because an actual former head of state was indicted on numerous charges, one of which is the recruitment of children. Another one is the case of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who is being tried by the International Criminal Court specifically and only on the charge of having recruited children. That’s important, because often prosecution occurs for multiple offenses, and it can water down the focus. We are entering an era where people are learning that if you recruit children you may very well be held accountable.

Another big step is that the UN Security Council is far more active on these issues, thanks in part to the initiatives of the Office of the Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict. There’s a recognition of the importance of the issue at a high level, and now states are actually starting to make a more concerted effort to keep children out of their own armed groups.

MS A 2001 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, titled “Child Soldiers: What About the Girls?” highlighted the lack of attention to and adequate treatment of girl soldiers. What progress has been made regarding postconflict treatment of girl soldiers?

MW There is now far more attention on girls. Ten years ago a child soldier pretty much meant a boy soldier. Girls were even called by a different name—“camp followers.” As a result, they were not only discriminated against but they became invisible. They did not qualify for any of the benefits that boys would get following armed conflict, and there was very little attention to helping them reenter civilian life. Arguably girls have a much harder situation to deal with because the levels of stigmatization directed at girls is fundamentally greater. For a boy to be called a rebel can result in isolation and reprisal attacks; but for a girl, particularly if she is a mother, it can mean that she will be viewed as damaged goods, possibly rejected by her family and viewed as unmarriageable.

MS And then unable to care for her child as a result.

MW That’s right. In places like Sierra Leone, women say, “To be unmarried at my age in this society is the equivalent of social death.” And there’s the brutality that a lot of women experienced inside armed groups. In Angola, for example, the members of UNITA, the opposition group, said that they had to carry extremely heavy loads long distances and not make a sound. If the government forces were around, they were forced to kill their babies because they might cry and give away their position. I’ve also talked with women who said, “I was pregnant; they held me on the ground and stomped on my stomach. They tried to kill my baby or forced me to deliver.” These kinds of activities have a really profound long-term negative health impact.

So the discrimination against girls and women has been a huge human rights issue. Fortunately that is starting to change. Girls have distinctive needs, and you can’t just reintegrate them in the same way that you reintegrate boys. They are entitled to benefits, but the benefits need to be gendered and tailored to their situation. Above all, these girls can’t be discriminated against and treated as throwaways.

MS Could you explain a little bit more about the life of a child soldier?

MW First of all, there is a big difference between children who are abducted and forcibly recruited as opposed to those who enter through some decision that they make. It’s not to say that it’s a free choice: the choices are always founded on hardship, poverty and a relative lack of options. But those who are taken by force very quickly start making decisions about what they have to do to protect themselves and stay alive. They may well view themselves as victims, and often they are terrified, because their abductors use terror tactics to control them. While it isn’t true in all cases, in many countries young people are forced to kill members of their own villages or even their own families to make it difficult for them to ever return home. Typically that’s mixed with propaganda, where the commanders tell the young people, “Don’t try to escape or go home, because we will kill you. If you did go home, the people there would remember the horrible things you’ve done and they would kill you.”

MS Commanders say things like “Killing will make you stronger.” Is this a technique to desensitize the children?

MW Well, there is the desensitization. One of the things that psychologically enables normal people to engage in horrendous violence is progressive exposure to violence. Being exposed to a murder for the first time can be horribly traumatic, but it’s less traumatic if, before that, you witnessed a beating, and then a more severe beating, and then a murder. Commanders understand this, so they often force their recruits to engage in progressive acts of violence. And they also use some psychologically sophisticated techniques for resocializing people and helping them carve out new identities. One is that they give them combat names. It can be very attractive to have a glitzy combat name so you can be recognized as fearless or ferocious or both.

And commanders also extend incentives. If you perform well, you’re given a command responsibility, or maybe you’re given a couple of wives or more money and access to looting. And if you don’t perform well, maybe you’re punished or threatened or given the worst job.

Another method that’s used is mentoring. Young people often say the armed group actually becomes their family. Within that there is often a father figure, the commander, who takes the young person under his wing. The bonds between a young boy and a father figure are very strong; there is a sense of obligation, allegiance, and so on.

MS There is a lot to be undone, then, when a child leaves an armed group.

MW Exactly. And if you mix that with the political indoctrination that goes on, then you find—in groups like the FARC in Colombia or LTTE in Sri Lanka—that young people are fed extreme political messages about how “our group is doing only what needs to be done for the sake of justice,” as opposed to what’s being done by the government, which is “the voice of evil” and an expression of corruption and tyranny.

MS So the demonization of the opposite side seems to justify the actions of the group.

MW Yes, there’s no opportunity to challenge; this kind of brainwashing tries to shut down all critical thinking.

MS Does this lead to what you refer to in your book as “a different moral space”?

MW Yes. Sometimes it’s simply the conspicuous gap between what you have known and where you are now. So if a 7-year-old child who has never engaged in violence is suddenly abducted, witnesses a death, and is actually forced to participate in a killing, that very young child may decide that “this is what I have to do to survive.” It begins the construction of a separate moral space, wherein what’s acceptable and even demanded within the armed group is fundamentally different, and so they live by that moral code. Young people often go through a process of splitting. It’s a dissociative response, as if they can hardly remember what they were like as civilians. It’s not so much that they’ve become wanton criminals, but it’s a process that cuts them off from those other morals.

MS We’re all capable of that, I suppose, given the right circumstances.

MW Yes, most people are. And the other thing is that the embrace of ideology and the political indoctrination begin to skew people’s understanding of when it’s appropriate to kill or when violence is an acceptable instrument. There you tend to find a bigger shift in what’s viewed as right or wrong. Young people are often actors in this; they are not just recipients of others’ tutelage. A 17-year-old who’s had his family murdered by the opposite group may become a leader and say, “Violence is the only way. This is what we have to do, and the killing is justified.” The moral development and the moral thinking and the actual values expressed are very different from those of civilian life.

MS And that’s the importance of working with the youth if you want to change the future.

MW Yes, that’s a good note to end on. For me, the big challenge is to create positive life options that enable youths to find meaningful lives as civilians so they’re not tempted to join armed groups, and also to help young people become peace builders, so that societies don’t fall apart in armed conflict and young people aren’t as likely to be forcibly recruited.

For me one of the key challenges is to ask how we can create conditions in which children are more likely to grow up as productive civilians, having their rights protected, rather than as soldiers who get recruited into the next armed group.