Rights & Wrongs: Silence of the six-year-old soldier

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FIRINICE was six when he was caught by Renamo guerrillas who raided his village in Mozambique. He watched them hack off his parents' heads, then those of his five brothers and sisters. When they gave him matches and told him to set fire to his family hut, he obeyed. Later, he carried the guerrillas' food and supplies, and was put to guard their animals. He then escaped and was taken in by an orphanage. He will not speak.

Firinice at least got away before graduating to knives and guns. Fernando, another Mozambican child, was 12 when captured by Renamo men who killed his parents. The training he later described to a reporter is typical of that given by Mozambique's guerrillas to their estimated 10,000 child soldiers. Practice killings were carried out on chickens, then on pigs. 'They would scream, and there was lots of blood, but we killed them,' the boy is quoted as saying. 'Then they made us kill people. We had to kill them with guns and machetes and smaller knives. Over and over again we had to do this.'

Few guerrilla movements have coached their child fighters with such sustained brutality, but these rites have become depressingly familiar for children caught up in conflicts all over the world. Peru's Sendero Luminoso is known to train young boys with ritualistic killings involving penknives and thousands of small slashes to the bodies of victims. From Iran to Burma, the Philippines to Guatemala, children as young as eight are being turned into killers.

Willing or unwilling recruits, it seems they make excellent soldiers. Psychologists say they appear to lack the moral restraints of adults, particularly if taken young enough, and will commit atrocities older fighters shy away from. They take orders more readily and have less fear of death. And today's very light weapons are easy for children to handle.

This month, as in every other recent August, the question of how to curb the use of children as soldiers is being discussed in Geneva by the UN Sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities. There is talk of legislation and international agreements.

But child soldiers are believed to be fighting in at least 20 conflicts around the world despite numerous existing agreements to prevent them doing so, including the new Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What can be done? In October there is to be a special conference on children in armed conflicts. All the evidence suggests that delegates will find no easy answers.