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Children of war: Africa's civil conflicts harm 100,000 young lives

More than 100,000 children have been abducted, tortured and sexually abused before being recruited to fight in Africa's long-running civil wars in the past three years, a report revealed yesterday.

More than 100,000 children have been abducted, tortured and sexually abused before being recruited to fight in Africa's long-running civil wars in the past three years, a report revealed yesterday.

Teenage boys and girls forced to join militias are being subjected to psychological torture so that they can be indoctrinated.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has more than 30,000 child soldiers fighting in militias and acting as bodyguards for government army commanders. Girls are also kidnapped and gang-raped by soldiers using them as entertainment and rewards for bravery.

The country is part of the Great Lakes region of Africa, the global epicentre of child warfare, where a total of 50,000 children have been used by armed groups to win power struggles in their own and neighbouring countries.

Martin was abducted aged 13 by the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which has fought an 18-year guerrilla war against the Ugandan government. "Early on, when my brothers and I were captured, the LRA explained to us that all five brothers couldn't serve in the LRA because we would not perform well," he said. "So they tied up my two younger brothers and invited us to watch. Then they beat them with sticks until two of them died. They told us it would give us strength to fight. My youngest brother was nine years old."

The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers described some of the tactics used in the world's most brutal conflicts in its report, released yesterday.

Geoffrey Oyat of Save the Children, part of the coalition, said: "Children are forced to go through orchestrated events that turn them from victims to perpetrators, and make them feel they have no option but to join the militias."

A girl kidnapped at the age of 13 by militias in Burundi told interviewers: "They would eat and drink, then they would call for you. They were so many. It was so painful. If you refused, they used sticks to whip you. They all had sex with me. A man would come, then another and another. I wasn't the youngest."

Militias and government troops in Sudan have also used children to fight their internal conflicts. The coalition said children as young as 14 had been recruited into the government militias of the Local Defence Forces, in Rwanda, even though the Rwandan government denies using children as soldiers.

Napolean Adok, who was recruited as a child soldier with the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to fight in southern Sudan's 21-year war against the government, said: "In long-running civil wars, groups run out of manpower. All the adult men get killed. No wonder they need children. In Sudan, there are no street children even though the country is so poor. On the pretext of reforming them, the government recruits them as child soldiers."

The influx of light ammunition into Africa has boosted child recruitment, the report says. "Let's face it, small guns are perfect for small hands," said Tony Tate, the children's rights director at Human Rights Watch. "If we sent light ammunition to these countries, they will be used by children."

Some countries had run demobilisation programmes for children, the report said, but many teenagers found it hard to fit back into normal society. Girls who had been abducted by militias were particularly vulnerable because they were often shunned by their families if they had been raped and become pregnant.

Mr Adok, the former SPLA fighter, said: "For child soldiers, something that looked like a toy became a killing machine. Even after a war ends, former child soldiers remain a social landmine. They cannot fit into society and often end up joining some other militia."

Child soldiers have been used to fight wars in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Pakistan. In the Middle East, Palestinian groups have accepted children as suicide bombers. The United States was also criticised by the coalition for detaining 16 and 17-year-olds in Guantanamo Bay as "enemy combatants".

The plight of child soldiers was as bad as it was three years ago, despite the fact that the UN had introduced a protocol in 2002 to end the recruitment of children. So far, 115 countries have signed up, but many, especially in Asia and Africa, have violated the agreements. Countries can legally be tried for using soldiers under the age of 15 through the International Criminal Court, but none have yet been prosecuted.

The coalition called on the UN Security Council, which meets in Nairobi this week, to apply sanctions against countries that allow children to be used as soldiers.