Red Hand Day: Memories of Child Soldiers in Sierra Leon

Red Hand Day: Memories of Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

Red Hand Day: Memories of Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

Former child soldiers, coerced into committing unimaginable acts of violence, now confront the daunting task of healing from the wounds of war and reconstructing their lives. On Red Hand Day, the narratives from Sierra Leone shed light on their anguish while also showcasing their resilience and optimism.

Sierra Leone continues to grapple with the lasting impact of trauma and the challenges of reintegrating former child soldiers. The devastating civil war that plagued the country from 1991 to 2002 still deeply affects its people to this day.

As the world unites on February 12 to acknowledge the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as Red Hand Day, Sierra Leone takes a moment to reflect on its ongoing journey with its troubled past.

According to Peter Konteh, a Catholic priest who closely worked with children involved in the war, Sierra Leone faced the daunting task of not only disarming child soldiers but also helping them overcome the trauma they experienced. Armed conflict compelled many of these young individuals to enter the fray at a tender age.

“Our first priority was to help them rediscover their childhood, as their time in the jungle exposed them to unimaginable horrors such as violence, rape, and countless atrocities,” shared Konteh with The Diplomat News.

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Africa is home to nearly 50% of child soldiers worldwide

The UN established Red Hand Day in 2002 as a global initiative to raise awareness and take action against the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Paris Principles, providing a clear definition of a child being associated with an armed force or group.

As per these guidelines, a minor within this context pertains to any person below 18 years of age actively participating in warfare or conflict in diverse roles. It’s important to note that the definition extends beyond just fighters. It includes minors who work as messengers, porters, spies, or even cooks. Additionally, it covers children who are recruited and exploited for sexual purposes.

This issue is particularly prevalent in Africa, where seven countries collectively account for 40% of the world’s child soldiers, totaling around 250,000 individuals. A recent UN report highlighted that in 2022 alone, there were severe violations against the Paris Principles affecting 18,890 children worldwide, with approximately a quarter of them being girls.

It is disheartening to see that many of these violations occur across Africa. Let’s persist in our collective efforts to safeguard the rights and well-being of children, ensuring that no one robs them of their childhood and forces them into such devastating circumstances.

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Trauma often leaves lasting marks

The scars left by trauma are deep and lasting. Manty Tarawalli, Sierra Leone’s minister of gender and children’s affairs, vividly remembers the atrocities of war she witnessed as a young child during the civil war.

She knows firsthand the unimaginable trauma that children endured, describing in detail how they were forced to commit acts of violence against each other using basic kitchen tools and blunt objects.

Konteh emphasizes the importance of proactive methods to help these children heal from their psychological wounds. The priest highlights the crucial role of mental health support in their recovery, as they have experienced immense horror and are in need of assistance.

Lost aspirations and stolen innocence

Red Hand Day: Memories of Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

Ishmael Morgan Heritage Charles once had dreams of becoming a doctor, but his ambition to help others was shattered by the brutal war in Sierra Leone.

Reflecting on his years as a child soldier, he shared, “I always wanted to alleviate suffering, not cause it.”

However, Charles has since devoted his life to creating a brighter future for himself and others. By becoming an author and humanitarian, he proves that one can overcome even the most profound trauma.

Similarly, another former child soldier, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared with The Diplomat News that once the conflict in Sierra Leone ended, he dedicated his life to studying peace and conflict.

“I pursued various courses on international humanitarian assistance and recently completed my MBA in leadership and management,” he revealed to The Diplomat News.

‘Invest in community structures’

I campaigned for the approach of investing in community structures instead of compensating individuals who took up arms. Many people lack leadership and role models to help them transform their lives.

Even after war and conflict, they often find themselves stuck in the same cycles of crime and abuse. Sierra Leone’s “arms for cash” program provided a way for some to disarm, but I believe in alternative approaches that offer sustainable solutions for long-term reintegration.

Some parents even criticized their children for not taking up arms because others were receiving compensation.

Discouraging trends

The urgency to address discouraging trends becomes even more apparent as the world observes Red Hand Day. Ideas and suggestions, such as those proposed by Konteh, are gaining momentum. The UN has reported a concerning increase in grave violations against children in 2022, particularly during war and conflict.

In the latest UN report on children and armed conflict, released in June, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasized the gravity of these violations. They encompass acts of killing, maiming, abuse, and abduction, leaving lasting trauma in their wake.

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