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The work of the Ford Institute for Human Security—one of the few centers of its kind—places Pitt at the forefront of emerging issues on genocide, human rights abuses, and other threats to human security. In particular, the institute wants to keep childhood out of the line of fire.

The Smallest Soldiers

Ervin Dyer

It is morning and the chickens are still crossing the roads in sunny Salala, a remote town folded into the forests of central Liberia. The quiet is shattered as armed rebels, in their frayed fatigues and faces painted in charcoal ash, storm through, kicking up dust. In minutes, they arrive at the home of a local merchant, demanding his money and his food. There is not much here, a place where many struggle just to have bread to eat. But the merchant gives all he has. It is not enough.

  Simon Reich (Tom Altany photo)

The rebels believe he’s hiding more; they grow angry, aim their guns at the heads of the merchant and his wife and shoot them to death. They spare Charles, the couple’s son, but whisk him away to a camp in the thick green arms of the jungle. Once there, they get him high on a cocktail of cocaine and gunpowder. They brainwash him and give him an automatic weapon. They train him for a week and send him to the front line.

Charles is a soldier. He is 7.

Across the globe, from Colombia to The Congo, there are an estimated 250,000 others like Charles —children turned combatants. Child soldiers, both young boys and girls, are recruited or abducted into fighting for bedraggled governments struggling to maintain order or rebel forces amassing to overthrow them. Charles was stolen in 1989, the beginning of one of Liberia’s most brutal civil wars. When most kids were learning their ABCs, he was learning to kill. He is now 25. We’re not sharing his real name, because he fears the repercussions of being identified. Muscular but thin, Charles dresses in an oversize basketball jersey and khaki pants. On his head, a thick woolen ski cap. Despite the high temperatures in Ghana, where his refugee camp, Buduburam, is a short distance from Accra, the cap is always there. It hides the fact that his ears have been cut off—the punishment for having once run away from the rebels.

When Charles fled, he found his way to a small town, where he made friends, grew maize, and prayed that the memories of war would fade like the passing of the night. After a few years, however, rebels attacked that village and recognized him. He was recaptured, raped, and mutilated.

In the 1990s, a second civil war further mangled Liberia, a once-stable West Africa nation crafted from the sweat and dreams of freed American slaves. In the wake of war, much was plundered. Undone. Charles, still a child soldier, was ravaged, too. Wounded and battered by malaria, he recovered in a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia’s tattered harbor capital. There, a kindly doctor soothed his wounds and helped him escape to Cote d’Ivoire.

Thousands of miles away, across a blue ocean, a professor of international affairs sits in a starched white shirt and khakis in a sun-washed room in Posvar Hall. He’s helping child soldiers, too. Simon Reich is director of Pitt’s Ford Institute for Human Security, a research center in the offices of the Matthew P. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies. Reich teaches in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, which along with the University Center for International Studies, supports the institute.

Articulate and impassioned, he has a thousand stories about how the institute wants to make the world better. He’s quick to laugh, and enjoys “The Daily Show,” but behind the tweedy history-teacher facade pulses the deep fervor of a man out to give voice to the littlest victims of war.

The Ford Institute for Human Security—one of the few of its kind on an American campus—is an emerging leader in independent research on genocide, human rights abuses, and other conditions that destabilize human security. Understanding why and how these injustices happen will help to provide solutions. Reich has ambitious goals to forge international links, as well.

The institute originated in 2003 thanks to a $2.25 million endowment from the Ford Motor Co. Reich says that Ford’s current leadership is sensitive to human rights issues. With the Pitt endowment, Ford wanted to create an institute with a contemporary focus on the protection of civilians in war.

Human suffering comes from two sources, says Reich. There are natural disasters, such as tsunamis, which kill thousands. Then there are cruel human behaviors, which kill millions. As he speaks, his intense brown eyes peer out from behind thin-framed glasses. He talks about refugees, displaced people, and child soldiers, reaching back to stories he first heard as a child.

Reich’s father, Erich, was a refugee. In 1938, he took one of the last trains out of Vienna before the Nazis arrived. He was 16. He made his way to England, where he was classified as a suspected enemy alien and put on a boat to an internment camp in Canada. Two years later, orphaned by Nazi atrocities, he went to London and found work laboring in a shoe factory.

Reich says that, as with child soldiers, his father also was buffeted by displacement, loss of family, and severe cruelty. It’s a history that fuels his research to prevent human brutality.

Helping Reich compile accurate information on child soldiers are nearly a dozen graduate students. They investigate specific conflicts and study the absence of peacekeepers, the distance of camps from major roads and camp populations—all variables that may escalate the recruitment of child soldiers. The statistics are aimed at helping officials create better policies to protect children and refugees.

Penelope Nelson-Bissett, a Texas native, is one of Reich’s graduate students. She is pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs and public health but confesses she only became aware of the plight of child soldiers three years ago.

Last summer, thanks to a Pitt Nationality Rooms scholarship, she went to Ghana’s Buduburam—a camp of 35,000 displaced Liberians about 300 of whom are former child soldiers. What she saw among the 160 former soldiers she interviewed—including Charles—touched her deeply.
She saw young men and women with grenade wounds, shrapnel scars,
and amputated limbs. She saw one young man with a bullet still lodged next to his heart. Other wounds were tougher to see.

Taken so young, the boys learn to be soldiers but not men. They dally around the camp clinging to one another, stuck in a twilight zone between man and child.

Many of the child soldiers, Nelson-Bissett says, are unemployed and unable to go back home. It is a frustrating dead end. Without assistance, they could easily slip back into a cycle of violence. One man told her that he might as well pick up the gun to make a life—it is the only way that he knows.

International laws say children cannot be soldiers. Yet, it happens anyway, often under the most brutal of circumstances: Rape, kidnapping, threats, and sexual exploitation are common. Most nations count anyone younger than 18 as a child soldier; optional protocol says 15. They are overwhelmingly boys, but girls, too, are recruited to kill.

Why children?

They are cheap to arm and easy to manipulate; easy to detach from family, and easy to intimidate. They serve as cooks, sex slaves, intelligence gatherers, and cannon fodder, often sent first into the killing fields so that veteran, experienced soldiers are spared. Many are taken so young that they bond with their captors, who turn them into drug-addicted, soulless assassins.

In his best-selling memoir, A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone, writes of how he coldly lined up children no older than himself and shot them in the head. Their crime: He believed they belonged to the troops that fired a bullet into his shins.

Though Reich has studied conflicts in Africa to analyze the recruitment of child soldiers, it’s a mistake, he says, to think that it’s happening only on that continent. Children are soldiers in South America and Asia, as well. In fact, the tiny nation of Myanmar—which has been in the news recently—has more child soldiers than most places in the world.

The problem can spike in poor communities. Orphans, particularly the growing numbers of children being left alone because their parents have died from AIDS, are especially vulnerable. Most first-world nations only get involved when their national security is threatened, says Reich, explaining why interest in the Sudan crisis or the Rwandan massacre has been so limited.

The last comprehensive report on children and war was published a decade ago when Graça Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, brought the horrors of war-affected children to the world’s attention. Since then, because of post-9/11 tensions and the Sudan crisis, child soldiers are back in the public eye. The Ford Institute is doing its part to keep the focus there, to push for solutions.

Early last year, an international conference was called to consider the plight of child soldiers. It happened in the United Kingdom, drawing hundreds, and, in a sign of the Ford Institute’s growing influence, Reich delivered a keynote speech on how best to protect children in conflict.

In September 2006, he was among the professors, human rights advocates, and international experts who gathered at the University of Pittsburgh to discuss child soldiers. Last summer, he presented findings before a United Nations council. In the fall, a UN expert with the Office of Children and Armed Conflict spoke at Pitt.

In April, Reich’s office released a report that seeks to protect those in refugee camps and those who are internally displaced due to conflicts, as in Darfur. The report What Makes a Camp Safe? makes policy recommendations based on empirical data never before compiled. Reich and his Ford Institute team are the first to create such a data base. It provides solid evidence—basic irrefutable facts—about the number of atrocities in camps as well as other relevant statistics. This spring, Reich briefed senior UN officials about the report. He also presented highlights to the American Jewish World Service and other organizations that could have an influence on improving the outcomes for those at risk.

Wherever there is discussion between governments, international officials, and nongovernmental organizations on how to prevent the conditions that foster child soldiers, says Reich, the institute needs to be a part of the conversation. “What we want to do,” he says, “is bridge the gap between academic knowledge and feasible policy.”

It is summer in Buduburam.

The days are long. The mangoes are budding. Charles wears his cap. It is one stable thing he can count on in a camp where, for so many, there is no health care, no school, and no money to buy food. Many refugees must collect rain in buckets to have drinking water.

Former child soldiers, many of whom are marked by the maiming of their ears, are outcasts among outcasts. They have few skills to make a new life and, afraid of being recognized as brutes, they fear returning to their old villages. Still, the camp is a beginning. They huddle with surviving soldiers to share a meal, a mattress, and camaraderie with someone who wrestles the same demons.

For more than 15 years, Charles was haunted by the ghosts of the battlefields. Each evening, bound in the dark blanket of his nightmares, he went back to hell. Then, one morning, he walked into a small office at the camp and found Pitt’s Penelope Nelson-Bissett. Finally, he was ready to talk, ready to tell his story.

In the shade of a large tree, he sat on an old rickety bench and spoke about his experiences. It was the first day of his first interview, and Charles talked for six hours.

The office, with its torn screens and buzzing mosquitoes, became a sanctuary, a place he went every day. With a bottle of water and a lunch of rice and beans, he slowly unwrapped his burdens.

After two months, a shy, fearful Charles became a Charles who is more chatty and friendly. He even smiles, a bright reminder that places like the Ford Institute can and do listen to the cries of children—even when they are soldiers.

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