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Plight of child soldiers needs news media attention, panelists say

By Namrata Savoor


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ARLINGTON, Va. — The international community and the news media must devote more attention to the plight of "child soldiers," who are forced into armed combat in war zones throughout the world, panelists agreed at an Inside Media program July 19 at the Newseum.

"In war-ravaged Sierra Leone, for example, the guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary United Front kidnaps children from their homes and raises them in villages to be enlisted in the movement, said Steve Coll, managing editor at The Washington Post.

Many of the 9-to-14-year-olds were "literally snatched away from their families and indoctrinated into the revolutionary movement under threat of death," Coll said. In some cases, children were forced to commit horrific crimes as a part of an initiation rite, he added.

"And escape is barely an option," said Jimmie Briggs, a free-lance writer who has followed the issue extensively in West Africa and Sri Lanka. "In most cases, if they're caught, they are automatically killed."

Olara Otunnu, the United Nations secretary-general's special representative for children and armed conflict, estimated that last year more than 300,000 children were serving as child soldiers around the globe.

Briggs said children were used in Sri Lanka as the "first line of attack" in fighting government forces. In other wars, he said, they are used as scouts or are made to walk through fields to detect mines.

"That's why using children is so attractive to adults ... unfortunately they are seen as expendable," Briggs said.

Such dangerous tasks are not restricted to boys, noted Laura Barnitz of Youth Advocate Program International. Girls are also used as armed combatants, she said. And in some situations "they are being used sexually ... (and) as forced labor for the armed group."

Coll observed: "When the conflict ends, the child soldiers face another daunting challenge in resettling." Communities that were typically close-knit in peaceful times struggle to re-embrace the young soldiers as villages cope with the social and economic devastation of war, he said.

"You're struck by the instincts of communities, families, societies, to revert to silence about terrible events of this kind," he noted.

The lack of trust toward returning young soldiers responsible for war atrocities is apparent, Barnitz added. "People are not always willing to give them a chance to move on with their lives," she said.

Barnitz said the international community had done virtually nothing to help reintegrate former child soldiers because such rehabilitation is costly and time-consuming.

But "we have begun to bring governments to the table to talk about demobilizing child soldiers," she added.

And the news media role is also a problem, Coll said.

Although there has been reporting on the positive aspects of rehabilitating child soldiers in some countries, "the challenges in the American media, at a time when a vast majority of the news organizations are retrenching from international coverage, are formidable," he said.

The program was held in conjunction with the Newseum's exhibit, War Stories, on display through Nov. 11.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01