This chapter is about the history of Rwanda and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and children who are caught up in civil wars in Africa – some of whom become child soldiers
The situation of Rwandan refugee children was described as follows by George Alagiah, an Africa correspondent of the BBC Africa, who grew up in Ghana:
To be in Goma [a town in Zaïre, near Rwandan border] at this time was being transported back to a scene from the Old Testament. In less than a week, about a million people trudged across the border from Rwanda into Zaïre. Boys and girls clutched to their mothers’ clothes with one hand, a plastic bottle of murky water in the other. Men staggered under the weight of the possessions they balanced on their shoulders. Every once in a while you would find a child on its own, buffeted like a piece of jetsam in this bursting river of humankind. When the exodus was over the aid agencies counted as many as 40 000 children who had come adrift from their families.
Children refugees, war orphans, sick children – two thirds of the estimated seven million children who still die every year before the age of five are from Africa. Most of them die because they have to grow up in unhygienic conditions and do not even have access to the cheapest vaccines against childhood diseases. On average only one medical doctor is available for every 20 000 people in Africa. That means that there are still millions of people in Africa who have as good as no chance of ever even seeing a doctor.
Countless children are killed in civil wars – or are abused in these confrontations between adults and forced to kill other people. A situation has now been reached in which children and young people make up about half of all the civilians who die in armed conflicts. According to the United Nations 120 000 of the estimated 300 000 child soldiers in the world are in Africa. The youngest are barely seven or eight year old. Four of the five countries censured in this regard in 2003 are in Africa: Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.
Children do not always become soldiers only if they are forced to. Often they sign up voluntary with a guerrilla group after their parents have been killed or are missing, or because they believe they will have a better future in such an apparently strong community. Some of these “Rambo kids” – who are by no means only boys – often pretend to be very brave and callous during assaults. Though they can hold on Ak-47, they have acquired the technical skills needed to handle such a weapon of death. Tragically, the first thing they lose are their personal feelings and the longings of their young hearts. The vast majority of those who survive the trauma of having been a child soldier and who are asked in a rehabilitation programme what their greatest desire for the future is, almost always express only very modest wishes: “A job, something to eat . . .”
China Keitetsi (*1974) joined the National Resistance Army of Yoweri Museveni, who later became president of Uganda, at the age of nine. For ten years she endured the life of a child soldier before managing to flee the country. She now lives in Denmark. She has written a book about her experiences in the bush and dreams of one day going back to Uganda to help other children who have had similar experiences (look at her website: www.xchildsoldier.org). She recalls:
In the beginning I was happy to join the child soldiers. I had escaped the torturing of my father at home. And here I found many children of my age. When we learnt marching – left, right, left, right – I enjoyed it as if I was playing. I was just nine years old. What I also liked: Most of the other children were boys. Soon I would be like them, I thought . . . When the real horror started, much of it felt for a long time like an unreal dream. To get the attention, yes, also the love of the adult learners, we were ready for almost everything. After a while I became one of the bodyguards of one of the officers. I had to do everything for him, I also had to have sex with him, when he demanded it. When I was 14 years, I becamse pregnant and gave birth to my first child, a boy, who lives today somewhere in Uganda. It is my strongest wish to find him and to be reunited with him one day . . . I think it happened when I had killed more people than I have fingers on both of my hands. Then I felt that something had been broken deep inside me. When someone was begging me not to shoot him, I just thought: I can’t help you and did as I was ordered. We had been trained to respect our gun as if it was our own mother. With a gun you are strong, no matter how small or weak you are otherwise.
I realized that I was still able to feel when one of my young comrades, after he had killed somebody, turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger. I felt the same as he, the same pain, the same desperation. Only at the very end I understood that our adults leaders, who had promised so much, were just selfish. All of them, up to Museveni himself. You cannot trust adults at all . . .
Today I am an adult myself, even though I still have to grow a lot inside. I am 26 years old, I have a son and a little daughter, who live separately from me . . . But I will find them . . . and one day I will build a home for them and other children. Therefore I started studying in Denmark to become a social worker. Here I also found people who help me to overcome the horrors of my past.
The first generation of young Africans to have grown up in countries where the legacy of colonialism is still palpably present, but where the responsibility for government lies with an African head of state: What are their dreams? Where do they see their opportunities and limitations? What do they criticize, what do they want changed?
Let us listen to a few voices. They differ remarkably from the official declarations of governments and – obviously – cannot be regarded as representative.