The Forgotten Ones: What Should We Be Doing For Child Soldiers After Extraction?

War, armed conflict, and organised violence disrupt the lives of numerous social groups within the given conflict environment. During a war or conflict, social order can fall into disrepair, and as a result, children are often subjected to not only witnessing but taking part in the conflict. Julia Dickinson-Gomez mentioned in her article “Growing up in Guerrilla camps” that there are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers, as young as 7 years old, involved in approximately 36 conflicts around the world. The recruitment of child soldiers involves abduction, threats of harm and violence on themselves, their families, and their communities, and various methods of manipulation and coercion. In order to promote the discontinuation of use of child soldiers, it is important to understand their experience not only during war but after they are taken out of a conflict environment.

The United Nations reported that “When prevention and conflict resolution fails, it is more important than ever to ensure effective use of the tools created by the United Nations, and particularly by the Security Council. Maintaining strong monitoring and reporting on violations against children is a prerequisite to informed action. The Security Council working group on children and armed conflict, created in 2005 and currently chaired by Sweden, has an important role to play in ensuring that timely and reliable information on the impact of armed conflict on children guides the broader work of the Security Council.” This statement shows that steps are being taken in the right direction to remove the use of child soldiers. The U.N. also has stated that “the reintegration of former child soldiers must be a strong focus of our efforts. These children are rarely given the appropriate support to re-join their communities, often due to a lack of adequate resources to provide the immediate and longer-term support these children need. We must be more persuasive in encouraging governments, including donors, of the importance of this investment to help communities rebuild following conflict. It is a crucial final piece of the puzzle to ensure a sustainable peace”. This, however, is where much more can be done, starting with the further understanding of the trauma these children face. Ideally, we would live in a world where child soldiers are a foreign concept, but, as we make our way towards this goal, the children already affected need to be supported.

In recent years, studies have been conducted on what child soldiers have experienced, and how those experiences have impacted their behaviour and mental state. The trauma child soldiers are faced with during war has a different effect on them than if they experienced these events as adults. 330 female and male children aged 11 – 17, who were abducted and forced into taking part in violent conflict in Uganda, showed when studied that they had suffered repetitive traumatic experiences and assaults during their time as soldiers. Their suffering was also implemented by adults, which as children, they felt as though they should have been able to trust. This particular group of Ugandan soldiers showed symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.), as well as a more specific diagnostic: Developmental Trauma Disorder (D.T.D.). Patricia Kerig and Cecilia Wainryb wrote in Trauma and resilience among former child soldiers around the world that repetitive, personal, and omnipresent traumas during childhood are seen to have very different outcomes on a developing mind than a trauma like an accident, disaster or a single violent experience which are what can cause P.T.S.D. The complexity of the lingering impacts of war have on child soldiers shows the severity of their situation. 33% of the 330 children were diagnosed with P.T.S.D., and 36.4% were diagnosed with depression, indicating that the war experiences alone had monumental impacts on the minds of these children. However, when the research became more a specific focus on depression, social support, and family and community violence, Keirg and Wainryb reported that 78.2% of the children were diagnosed with D.T.D.  So many of a child’s basic needs, such as a sense of belonging, security, self-worth, and care from their parents, families, and peers, are lost or distorted when a child enters into violent conflict. It is no wonder that their war experiences during their developmental stage of life lead to not only PTSD, depression, and DTD, but also damaged cognitive processes and hostile behaviour which prevents them from ever fully developing. If there was more research into DTD as a specific mental disorder, more could be done to cater to the needs of child soldiers being removed from conflict, which especially becomes problematic when child soldiers are being reintegrated into society.

The process of removing a child from the conflict environment and reintegrating them back into society is a confusing and fearful one for the children and has a short- and long-term impact. The disarmament and demobilisation processes are the most immediate part of the reintegration process, and many child soldiers find this time to be difficult to process. They have their weapons taken away from them and the need for these children to stop being soldiers is presented immediately. Their raw emotions and unbalanced mental state can lead to angry outbursts and the feeling of being insecure without a weapon to defend themselves.

After this short-term process of disarmament and demobilisation has taken place, they are returned home, and the long-term reintegration process begins. A study was done on 142 child soldiers from Nepal that were to be reintegrated into their communities. This study found that one of the biggest challenges of reintegration for child soldiers is forming new, positive, social relationships. The younger a child is conscripted, the harsher their background, and the fewer strong relationships they had before conscription, all decide how difficult reintegration will be. Setting up new networks of positive relationships while living with the stigma of being a former child soldier is incredibly difficult, as they face the pain of rejection from their peers and families. Keirg and Wainryb reported that this can make the former soldier more prone to PTSD, DTD and depression. These small issues make functioning normally difficult, which is significant as they are becoming adults. Many former child soldiers say they were rejected by their communities who felt hostile and distrustful towards them when they returned. Some were accused of killing members of the community. This isolation makes developing that key network of positive relationships very hard to achieve, and without it, the reintegration process is made far more stressful.

As well as social issues, economic issues become evident during the reintegration process. Child soldiers lost time and opportunities to war. By missing out on opportunities that would have been made available had they not been forced into war, they have come to lack resources they need to get ahead in life. Reintegrating into society with no money, and often no family or relationships, going on to build a family can be difficult. Even once they have found a partner and established a family, their financial and social issues remain problematic for the next generation of their family. The need for a long-term support system in place for ex-child soldiers is great. There is little point to rescuing these children if they do not receive support once they are reintegrated. There need to be programs, funding, mental health support, available jobs, and a restorative community readily available to these children when they return. If international governments are going to claim they are fixing the problem of child soldiers, they need to be focusing far more attention to these areas. Only then will these people and these communities truly find their peace.