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Originally published in Newsday.


The Child Soldiers

Returning the youngest warriors to normalcy

In Iraq, children as young as 3 are out on the streets, shining shoes, washing cars, collecting garbage and selling sweets, water, ice, cigarettes - anything to make some money. “This puts them at immense risk of becoming delinquent, bitter and falling in with extremist organizations for lack of hope or anything to do,” says Marie de la Soudiere, director of the Children Affected by Armed Conflict program at the International Rescue Committee.

To avoid that fate, her team in Iraq is identifying such children and involving them in work such as cleaning and painting schools, tutoring younger kids, and teaching them to practice democracy and good governance. They do this by encouraging the youngsters to form a music, book or sports club within a tight budget. “All of a sudden, it’s not about the physically biggest bashing up others. It’s about getting together and forming something through dialogue and making the best decisions,” she says.

The Manhattan-based IRC is one of the largest nonprofit agencies in the world that provides assistance to refugees, displaced persons, and anyone fleeing persecution and violent conflict. De la Soudiere, 60, of Brooklyn, has been involved in this work for more than two decades. Her first glimpse into the world of conflict was in 1980 in Paris, when she and her husband opened the newspaper one day and read an account by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg about the massacres in Cambodia. The article included a photo of Cambodian children streaming into Thailand. “They were ghosts,” she recalls.

Ever since, she has worked across the world, tracing the families of child soldiers who either escaped the guerrillas who abducted them or were released in peace operations like the current one in Liberia.

Sitting in her Manhattan office, in the span of a 10-minute conversation with a colleague, she checks in on the work being done to rehabilitate children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia and Uganda, as well as 20 other countries. She spends 40 percent of her time traveling in these countries, training and guiding her staff on how to deal with the kids and their families.

Because tracing and reuniting separated children is so tough, de la Soudiere says, in order to do it, “you have to be mad. It is like detective work. My premise is that for every child, there is also a family somewhere.” The first step is to compile names, a difficult task because often children were so young when they were snatched by rebels that they don’t remember their real or full names. Or once rescued, they are scattered in different camps, at times in other countries. Or in some countries, such as Rwanda, family names aren’t used.

Then, via village chiefs and the radio, she spreads information about the children available and puts up names and photographs at border posts. Because she often deals with tribal people who don’t understand photographs, it is normal for her to meet hysterical families who, having recognized a face, want to know where the rest of the body of their child is.

One of the major problems she faces in dealing with families is breaking down the barriers they’ve created. In Sierra Leone, northern Uganda and Liberia, as part of their initiation into the rebel world, children were made to either kill their family members or chop off their hands, arms or ears. “So when the villagers hear that these kids could be coming back, they are terrified.” De la Soudiere and her staff then, through dialogue, work to make the people remember that these are their own children.
And families find ways to bring home their own. “They invented new devils to explain what had happened … and created a mythology to explain these aberrations,” she says. The villagers held cleansing ceremonies, sometimes for three days, which included actual washing with mud, herbs and leaves, and always a sacrifice of a goat, lamb or chicken. “It would be my job to provide them an animal for the sacrifice because they were too poor to afford one.”

While they wait for families to respond, de la Soudiere’s staff, with the help of local social workers, conducts psychosocial therapy for the children, crucial to reintegrate them into society.

The success rate, she says, is phenomenal. “Only a fraction of the children do not do well when they go home. We follow up with them for two or three years, depending on the funding, and that support is crucial to both families and the children.”

In one story with a happy ending, de la Soudiere says, they had been working with a girl who had escaped from guerrillas in Uganda in 2001 after suffering multiple rapes. “Walking down the street she used to be like a wild woman. If any man even walked near her, she would lunge and start hitting out.” Her staff taught her to sew and tailor and after six months she had opened her own boutique. She is now happily married.

In another instance in 2000, de la Soudiere went to a camp in Sierra Leone where all the children, except a 17-year-old boy, had been successfully rehabilitated. “My staff didn’t know what to do with him because he was very violent and very aggressive,” she recalls. Finally, they asked him what he wanted to do and he said that he wanted to learn the craft of a sign maker. He became an apprentice to a man who took him into his family’s house. “When I went to meet him, he had a big smile on his face, and he took me to a crossroad nearby and showed me this big sign on which he had done the painting and the stenciling. He was so pleased and so proud and was back to normal.”

This article originally appeared in Newsday on January 5, 2004.

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