by Susan Albert
Children make good soldiers.
I shuddered when I heard that stark statement at a conference in Athens, Greece, recently. The speaker was from Sierra Leone, where rebel soldiers are recruited - abducted, really - from villages at young ages when they are easy to mold into obedient killers. Astonishingly, a majority of the rebel troops are just boys, 7 to 14 years old, while girls in that tender age bracket often are forced into sexual slavery, said Vandy Kanyako (pictured left), a panelist at the convention. His organization, Peacelinks, uses music and drama to help former child combatants recover from their soul-destroying experiences.
Similar horrors occur routinely throughout that grim roster of war zones that make little news in our country - Afghanistan, Chechnya, Colombia, Congo, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda, etc. More than 120 million children who live amid armed conflicts around the world do not have access to schools because they and teachers are targeted by militia, said Kacem Bensalah, a UNESCO official. He said, "when lost in the middle of chaos, school, beyond the learning function, is an island of peace and security."
But I came home from the conference, titled "The Child: A Victim of War and a Messenger of Peace," firmly convinced of one thing.
Children can make good peacemakers.
Our own young people, so blessed by peace and prosperity, have much to give to victims in foreign countries. And they have much to gain from contact with their resourceful young counterparts overseas. My work with children's programs in the greater Princeton area has convinced me that our kids are not just willing, but hungry, to respond to larger issues. Their reactions to lessons that I covered this school year, including a kindness and justice challenge and an ecology project, resulted in a multitude of questions, comments and concerns that assured me they long to make a difference.
Minnesota psychologist Claudia Baldwin has an exciting idea that could take root in central New Jersey. "Sowing Seeds for the Future," a foundation Baldwin started for orphaned Colombian children, uses the Internet to help public school children contact each other and spread democracy.
Adults in Mercer County, like Baldwin, can find many opportunities to light fires in the next generation.
The Athens conference, sponsored by the Foundation for the Child and Family in Greece, in conjunction with the Hague Appeal for Peace and the International Peace Bureau, covered many other issues that affect children and our environment.
One panel presented positive solutions that are already helping to prevent conflict. These solutions include the use and proliferation of civilian peace forces which provide security and safety for civilians in areas of conflict, or on the verge of it. Presentations by women who meet to build cultural bridges were offered by leaders who are working for peace between Israel and Palestine and in Africa.
Another panel covered the health and environmental hazards of depleted uranium (uranium 238). The United States and England used this inexpensive, dense substance in combat during the Gulf War and the war in Kosovo to destroy vehicles and bunkers. Symptoms of exposure to this radioactive material are similar to those involved in uranium mining and processing. All panelists emphasized the need for immediate medical care and environmental remediation.
The final panel covered nuclear weapons, which of course potentially threaten the future for all children.
Though much progress has been made to ban the use of landmines, many still exist, and unsuspecting children are the victims more often than soldiers.
Our children cannot do a lot about those important issues. But they can connect on a simple level with the concerns of other children around the world. Let's help them make the future a better place for all of us.
Susan Albert serves on the Peace Education Committee of the Coalition for Peace Action, Princeton, NJ; a Co-Sponsor of the YWCA Princeton Week Without Violence 2001. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org