‘A prolonged emergency’: Child soldiers and their special burden

28 June 2019

The use of children in combat is an unquestionable evil. Throughout the war in Uganda starting in 1987, the plight of the child solider became well recognised. The image of a child solider, with a gun in hand and rows of bullets strapped around their chest, became symbolic of the war, and the international community’s obligation to help. By 2004, the LRA had kidnapped upwards of 30,000 children to serve as child soldiers , but as the LRA have not been active in Uganda since peace talks in 2006 (though it remains operational in neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the international media has moved on to more ‘urgent’ and shocking events.

Little, therefore, has been done to understand the impact of the war years on these traumatised individuals, or to highlight the continuing struggle of Uganda’s forgotten children more than 10 years on.

The psychological impact

In a study of 85 former child soldiers, 52 reported current suicidal thoughts. Research has also shown that 97% of former child soldiers showed PTSD symptoms of clinical importance. This is, of course, important in itself, but is particularly pertinent, because in terms of feelings of forgiveness, children who showed more PTSD symptoms displayed significantly less openness to reconciliation, and more feelings of revenge towards those they deem to be the ‘enemy’.

Photograph by Blake Farrington, UNICEF
















Currently there is no available treatment that has proven effective for the treatment of PTSD amongst former child soldiers. Having lived away from their communities in the bush, on return home former child soldiers often faced suspicion, including from their families. In this way, the problem appears to be a doubled-edged one: former child soldiers are emotionally damaged because of their experiences, including being beaten themselves, being forced to beat or kill others or through the atrocities they have witnessed, but are then often isolated from the available sources of support on return home.

On escape or release, they are often met with further hostility because they may have committed atrocities against their own people. Forcing them to act in this way was often used as a deliberate tactic by the LRA, cutting children off from their families so that they would be less tempted to escape. 20% of young males interviewed in one study reported poor family relations. In addition, those who reported having poor relations with their family and peers were more likely to report symptoms of depression, meaning that the problem is a self-perpetuating one, with depression increasing their isolation and reducing their ability to seek help.

These difficulties are exacerbated by the interruption of the children’s education, with just under a quarter of those abducted reporting having no education. Alex, a former child solider, describes how when he ‘first came back I [he] went straight back to the same primary school I [he] had been in before. I [he] came back there after being away for two years. The other pupils knew. Friends are scared of you.’ 13 years on from peace talks and the successful reintegration of these adolescents back into their communities remains a huge challenge.

What can be done to help?

The psychological rehabilitation of child soldiers is an obligation according to the UN. Reception centres are temporary accommodation available for vulnerable people such as those fleeing war and refugees. Research has shown that roughly only 13% of former child soldiers have been to a reception centre. Of these, 4 out of 5 stated that their time there had facilitated their return to their communities, and half reported that they had had follow-up visits from the reception centre. So although there is no ‘cure’ as such for PTSD, reception centres were found to have positively impacted the reintegration process.

However, there is a further complexity in this process in that there appears to have sometimes been resentment from communities when aid was focused mainly on former abductees. There is the potential for the unforeseen consequence of stigmatisation attached to the aid, with others in the community sometimes feeling it was unfair that those who were solely victims were offered very little, but the former child soldiers (who were both victims and perpetrators) were offered more assistance. This potentially increased the isolation of those the scheme is trying to help.

How can justice be served?

In The Hague, Dominic Ongwen is awaiting his trial. The former LRA leader is being charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, his case too is complex – he, himself, was abducted as a child by the LRA. So there it is, the special burden laid bare, child soldiers are both victims and perpetrators – it seems that the phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ has never rung more true than in the case of child soldiers. It is only with continued focus and assistance to adjust and re-integrate into peace-time life that these children will be able to heal their hidden wounds.


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