January 27, 2021

When Children are Pawns in the Game of War

The kid who guards Fonseca’s tomb
Cradles a beat-up submachine gun —
At age fifteen he’s a veteran of four years of war
Proud to pay his dues
He knows who turns the screws
Baby face and old man’s eyes

Bruce Cockburn – “Nicaragua” – From the 1984 album “Stealing Fire”

Remember “Kony 2012”? This short documentary was made with the intent of trying to marshal the world’s resources to bring Joseph Kony to justice by 2012. To refresh your memory, Joseph Kony was the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Over the past twenty years the Lord’s Resistance Army (what an obscene name) has abducted 66,000 children to be used as either soldiers or sex slaves in the Congo, Southern Sudan, and Uganda. Kony is still at large.

The kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria in April seems to have finally regained the attention of the world when it comes to the plight of children in war torn areas. At the moment of writing, the girls had been found, but not rescued, as it was feared that the rescue would lead to their deaths. Regardless of what happens to these girls, my concern is that once this story reaches its conclusion, their story will soon be forgotten, as the world moves along to the next big headline.

What I wanted to stress today is that this story is not ending: There are hundreds of thousands of children in similar situations.

Our connection with the story began in 1977. My mother was on a commercial flight from Botswana to Zambia, intending to visit her parents for one last time before we returned to Canada. After she was seated, 30 frightened children were herded onto the plane at gunpoint. They were being taken up to Zambia to train as child soldiers to be used in the civil war in Rhodesia. We were told that it was a scenario that was being played out over and over again.

What effect does war have on children? In 1989 a random survey was done of 504 children in Mozambique who were between the ages of 6 and 15.

. 77% had witnessed murder, often in large numbers,
. 88% had witnessed physical abuse or torture,
. 51% had been physically abused or tortured,
. 63% had witnessed rape or sexual abuse,
. 64% had been abducted from their families,
. 75% of the abducted children were forced to serve as porters or human cargo
. 28% of the abducted children (all boys) were trained for combat.

Mozambique child soldier life outcome study: Lessons learned in rehabilitation and reintegration efforts
Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, USA

According to Human Rights Watch (a report from 2007):

In over twenty countries around the world, children are direct participants in war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children are serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts.

The following amendment was made to the Geneva convention in 1977.

The Parties to the conflict shall take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, the Parties to the conflict shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest.

In spite of this, the situation has not improved.

Three hundred girls being abducted is horribly tragic, and this story is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

This is a story that we can’t let fade from our consciousness like it did between 2012 and 2014. We can’t just move on to the next headline. There are too many children out there who should not be in the situation that they are in right now. I don’t have any quick or easy suggestions about how we keep this story at the forefront of people’s minds, but I do welcome any thoughts or suggestions that you might have to offer.


  1. Drena (@DrenaBlanc) says

    Social media is a very powerful tool if the right people get behind it and don’t let it die.

  2. Vega Magnus says

    It is difficult to make any story last for a substantial time in the public consciousness now due to the super fast news cycle. As far as solutions go, these situations are created by screwed up political climates in said countries that are beyond our control, so at the risk of sounding pessimistic, I’d have to say that there is little that can be done.

    • Regarding the media, the fast news cycle no doubts leads to a lot of “news churn” in general.

      On the other hand, it’s abundantly clear that many news organizations DON’T let certain subjects die once they have decided it’s important – for whatever reason – to keep the issues in their headlines. (FOX will keep talking about Benghazi, MSNBC will keep talking about climate change, and to their credit both have given attention to the recent Nigerian kidnappings.)

      Because we can’t easily obtain information about child warriors without the hard work of reporters supported by major news organizations, it’s important to insist said organization focus on such efforts. There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t make this issue one of their go-to topics — apart from the visceral fear they’ll lose market share to Yahoo! “stories” about what celebrities “stepped out” wearing last Tuesday OMG.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        JibJab’s comment about news churn and market share and what’s Truly IMPORTANT to cover:

        “Only three percent of us can find Kabul on a map;
        But ninety-eight percent have seen Brittney’s — PUDDYCAT!”
        — JibJab, “What We Call the News”

      • masterchef says

        “MSNBC will keep talking about climate change”


  3. Robert F says

    Horrible. Just horrible. I have no idea how to prevent it from disappearing from the headlines, or how to make things better, besides contributing some money and contacting our representatives in congress.

    Things like this are what make some of us anxious for the eschaton.

    Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

  4. Thank you for writing this, Mike.

  5. Robert F says

    In the “Grand Inquisitor” section of “The Brothers Karamazov,” Dostoevsky deals with the questions of theodicy that the suffering of children raises. He knows that the suffering of children encompasses all other legitimate objections to the goodness of God. But, as careful as his consideration of this subject is in the “Grand Inquisitor,” he misses one thing that this post touches on: the most horrible crime against children is to rob them of their innocence, a crime which tends to reproduce in those very children the strong tendency toward committing the same outrageous crimes they have suffered: “He knows who turns the screws / Baby face and old man’s eyes…”. But it’s not just any old man’s eyes; it’s the eyes of an old man who knows what it is to commit terrible crimes. The mystery of evil gets no deeper than this. God help the children, God help us all.

  6. Sad as it is, it will never end.

    “The day is evil.”

    As long as there are men and women (mostly men) who lust for power on this earth, there will be crimes against children.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      When Mike said he “welcomes any thoughts or suggestions that you might have to offer”, I don’t think he meant a platitude out of a sermon.

    • Dana Ames says

      “As long as there are men and women (mostly men) who lust for power on this earth, there will be crimes against children.”

      Yes, that is true. And ***as Christians*** we should do whatever we can to prevent the crimes and bring the perpetrators to account.

      But we don’t, not even on our own shores, in our own towns.

      We especially don’t in this case, because it’s Africa…

      Lord, have mercy on us.


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The only high-profile Christianese presence in Africa these days is TBN-style Prosperity Gospel and bankrolling the anti-Homosexual laws in Uganda. (AKA Culture War Without End, Amen. Especially when it comes to SEXUAL sin, with Homosexualty THE Unpardonable Sin.)

        The Third World of the Third World.
        Earth’s hard-luck continent for centuries.
        Highest concentration of dangerous wildlife,
        Highest concentration of Ebola-level diseases,
        No easily-reachable mineral wealth for bootstrapping even Iron Age tech
        (but huge amounts requiring high-tech/large-scale operations to attract foreign exploiters);
        No native riding animals,
        No long-term civilizations above tribal levels (and all the tribe-vs-tribe hostility that comes with the package).
        Add exploitation from Slave Trade to Blood Diamonds as soon as Arabs & Europeans were able to get there in numbers and post-Colonial meltdowns…

        • I know you usually speak with the tongue-in-cheeck, but — huh?

          Read reports from Lusanne 2010. Learn how African Anglicans are propping up their global church in post-Christian nations. Read about the Coptics in Egypt. Yes, Africa has a crapton of Prosperity Gospel (and I get a number of channels on a satellite Dish, it’s flat-out evil in most cases), but there are plenty of signs of a thriving church.

          Also, the whole “Teh Dominionists are funding anti-gay laws in Uganda” thing has been fairly well debunked.


  7. Can’t believe that song is 30 years old. Can’t believe what we do to children either. It really is us at our worst. I guess you could add the elderly, who are also helpless, with the only difference being that they can at least process what is happening.

  8. Tomorrow the story will be out of the news. Today, while it is in the news, it fuels our righteous indignation. But the number of people who will actually do something about it are very small. I know I haven’t done a thing.

  9. Dan Crawford says

    Just think of the hours devoted to Donald Sterling’s capture of 2 billion dollars and compare it to the minutes devoted to the capture of 300 young women by the adherents of a great religion of compassion and peace. So much for our news media.

    • flatrocker says

      So how does an inept sports franchise owner saying some really stupid things to his mistress in a private conversation become more news worthy than the destruction of a child’s life? My God, what are we?
      The prince of the power of the air is so proud.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “BECAUSE HE’S A CELEBRITY…!!!!!”

        Like all our Heroes(TM) today — Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Charlie Sheen, Honey Boo-Boo, Captain Weirdbeard of Duck Dynasty, Brittney Spears, Miley Cyrus…

        You’ve got to go to classic (pre-Sixties) literature or My Little Pony to find real heroes and role-models these days.

  10. Danielle says

    The traffic in people, especially children, is massive, both worldwide and in western/central Africa. So, the naysayers are correct to state that nobody’s going to be able to launch a crusade and put an end to it altogether.

    However, this is not the same thing as saying that nothing whatsoever can be done. There are NGOs which are trying to pressure local governments to be more pro-active, and who are intercepting a small percentage of people who have been trafficked and trying to help them. That effort is labor intensive and expensive. Worldwide interest in such efforts won’t wipe out trafficking, but it will help more people. Also, governments relegate this issue to a low priority in part because they know they won’t get in trouble for the their negligence.

    Also, trafficking in western and central Africa is driven largely by poverty. Children are being moved out of impoverished areas into wealthier ones. It is hard or impossible to do anything about an area that is wartorn until some level of stability returns, but sustained interest in the welfare of countries and regions can yield results over time. Bill Gates recently released an annual letter, in which he argued forcefully for the effectiveness of international aid. I’m sure some of his interpretation can be challenged, but he does a nice job of pushing against the notion that absolutely nothing can be done about large-scale problems. Some of his own pet projects have demonstrated as much.

    As for raising awareness, I’ve encountered two groups addressing that region in the past couple of years:

    (1) A local church held a benefit concert some months ago for a small organization that is working to rebuild a small, remote town that was devastated during the ongoing upheavals in the Congo. They were trying to find donation money for the purchase of equipment for a childbirth clinic. Very small, practical steps: but hey, if you’ve got $17,000, the clinic can have use an ultrasound machine. Small things matter.

    (2) Falling Whistles, which is interested in promoting stability in the Congo, had a team of interns roll into my neighborhood one night, make a lot of noise. They made a lot of noise and threw an event inside a storefront. I still don’t know what to make of their “too cool for school” self-presentation. [They sell merchandise, and their literature and websites are very offbeat.] I am also not familiar with the details of their operation, except that their stated goals are commendable. They managed to get money out of us, as well as signatures.

    So, it’s hard to keep people’s attention, but someone is trying to do it.

  11. I believe things can be done. Here are some things I have personally done about it within and outside the context of church.

    I led a small group in reading A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah’s book about being a child soldier. Some people from the group made child soldiers their mission *thing” and have stuck with it, both financially and in raising awareness among others in the church and in their other spheres of influence.

    I led a different small group that read Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s book about Partners in Health and Paul Farmer and the cause of bringing decent health care to the poor in Haiti, South America and Africa. It’s been about eight years since we did that, and people who were in that group still support PIH programs and tell others about this particular cause.

    Another time I got another group of people together in our church and we read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The people in that group were so moved by the situation of women in so many parts of the developing world that on their own they investigated what groups they could help and they set up a monthly pledge to support a handful of fistula hospitals in Africa. Years later, we estimate our small group of eight women have helped more than 100 African women have fistulas repaired.

    I am just one person in a small church of less than 200 people. But we don’t just wring our hands at the enormity of the problem. We do our research, we learn about these kinds of problems, we tell others what we’ve learned, we advocate for solutions and we do what we can to support organizations on the ground financially.

    My gift is leading small groups. So I lead small groups and make people aware. My causes are the ones I mentioned in this post. So I do something about them. Every one of us can do *something* to fight the good fight regarding the issues God has placed on our hearts. We may not see things resolved in our lifetimes, but that is not an excuse to do nothing.

    Sorry for the rant. Getting down off soapbox now.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Anyone remember “microloans”? Making small-scale loans to Third Worlders (usually women; men are too Manly-Man Irresponsible in a lot of these cultures) to get on their feet without getting exploited by local moneylenders? I remember hearing a LOT about them a few years back.

      • Yes, microloans are still around and the model of how they should work has been refined in the last few years, making them much better. It is as you say: the loans are much more successful when women are the recipients.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        These are wonderful programs: Blank cheques dissappear, but microloans help, and most importantly, it gives dignity to the recipient who can also pay it back.

  12. Thank you, Mike for writing about this issue. Yours is one way to begin to do something, simply making “us” comfortable people aware. As Danielle states, there are NGO’s and various groups working patiently and slow to improve things and save lives. My answer is that patient, slow work on the doing small things by ever increasing numbers of people will make a large difference in this terrible incident or any other.

  13. Thank you, Mike, for bringing attention to this horrendous situation. This is so sad, so disturbing, so senseless, so evil.

    I have nothing to express but grief for these children and nothing to offer but prayer.

  14. Mary LaVille says

    Thank you, Mike for bringing up the topic. As a middle class person I don’t have wide influence but I do pray about his topic daily and I do talk about it soically when I have an opportunity. May not sound like much but it is what I can do.

  15. If the news/media were for something other than generating a stream of income for advertisers then stories like this would perhaps stick around longer. Then perhaps then it would move more to action. Media , at large, is not for ‘us’. Stories like this dont sell ads like what event Brangelina attended.

  16. There are a number of organizations that rate charities on a number of scales; anyone can do a little research at places like charitywatch.org, givewell.org or charitynavigator.org before choosing what to support. That’s what we did.

  17. One sign of life in this: I am impressed by the number of younger Christians who see this as the “social justice” cause of their generation. It seems to span denominations and interests: from Word-of-Faith churches to KJV-Only Baptists and a ton of more moderate churches in the middle — it seems like it’s an issue that’s hard to miss in Evangelicalism.

    I’m not saying that’s a perfect answer or that we need to put some sticker on our bumper (or hashtags), but the awareness is at least there. Turning it into action? I think the first thing is to remind people that this isn’t a faraway problem in Africa or India — it’s happening in big and small cities in The US.


  18. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > laws prohibiting people from feeding the homeless..
    > Do city officials have a point, or are they just playing Scrooge?

    They have an *excellent* point. Whether it needs to be a law or not – I don’t know. Where i live businesses have just taken to putting up signs like “Do not give panhandlers money; there is food and shelter three blocks west”. This makes a lot of sense; at least here where we have numerous very reputable secular and Christian assistance organizations right in our downtown. The beggers are a security risk and a nuisance [they produce an immense portion of the city’s liter].

  19. So, on this same sort of topic, pioneering epidemiologist Ciro de Quadros just passed away at age 74. It is stunning how much he accomplished for the world, especially in developing countries and under conditions of war. This is the kind of work and the kind of person that deserves support and recognition. There are others like him today!

    Here is his obituary from The Washington Post:


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