Putting an end to the recruitment and use of child soldiers is a pressing human rights concern in so very many parts of the world. It is certainly an immense problem here on both sides of the border between Chad and Darfur. The full range of armies, militias and armed opposition groups responsible for years of fighting and human rights violations here are notorious for having thousands of young children in their ranks and regularly sending them out onto the battlefield.
For the past two days we have been interviewing a number of former child soldiers – yesterday in the town of Guereda and surrounding villages; and today at Kounoungou Camp, which is home to about 16,000 refugees from Darfur. All have been boys. Some are Chadian; others from Darfur. Most joined when they were very young, including as young as ten years of age.
All have now demobilized. With the Chadian boys it happened when the opposition group they were involved with joined forces with the Chadian military and at that point all of the group’s underage fighters were turned over to the UN. With the Darfuris we have interviewed, they have all made a choice to stop fighting – some because they felt they had family responsibilities, others because they had simply had enough.
What all of them so very much had in common though was a similar story of what propelled them to join the armed groups in the first place: human rights violations. They talked of poverty; they talked of insecurity; they talked of discrimination; and they talked of a lack of opportunity. It was all about human rights.
They tell a crushing story of deprivation and fearfulness that so wrenchingly shows how all human rights are interconnected. It is a story of human rights abuses that make it impossible for a family to escape poverty so deep that tomorrow’s food is never certain. Of human rights abuses that unleash violence and insecurity that leaves family members dead, homes destroyed, and precious cattle stolen. It is about human rights abuses that mean that the ability to go to school and build a future is never more than a dream. And at the core of it all is the fact that this misfortune and hardship happens to you — and the protection you so very much crave and deserve is never forthcoming – all because of the ethnic group you belong to.
That is the toxic web of human rights violations that can eventually push a 10 year old boy to believe that all that is open to him is to be trained in how to use a Kalashnikov and hope that he’ll be allowed to join the others in the next round of fighting. To believe that that is how he will be able to escape poverty; protect his family; and build a future.
Their voices and experience so powerfully reinforce the central message of the Demand Dignity campaign – that there are so many connections among human rights and that we need to stand firm in protecting all rights equally in the effort to overcome poverty.
The boys we have met over the past two days are working hard towards a better future. All are in school; and many are excelling. They have great hopes and dreams for themselves, their families and this corner of Africa, which they shared as we talked.
But this story is still unfolding for them. While thinking about the future they are all also so very much aware of the insecurity and injustice their communities still face. All recognize that tomorrow could bring another wave of violence. And if it comes – many of them worry it is likely that they would rush out to take up arms again.