Jeux d’enfants

They played together all day long. She was a princess and he was her knight.

He chased monsters for her, battled invaders and protected her from everything. She wore dresses and was so pretty she was used to being adored and praised by everyone. She liked dancing and drawing and sometimes teasing him, but only because she liked him so much.

They didn’t question their roles – it is like this in our world. Why should a girl be a princess and a boy be a warrior. Why mustn’t boys cry and why mustn’t girls go out alone. They didn’t ask, they just played.

And sometimes they even held hands.

In the end, the world was made like this, and everyone seemed to follow the rules. Adults praised them for being brave soldiers or beautiful dancers, and children listened attentively and soaked up like little sponges every instruction about what the world is like and how we should behave.

Adults talked about heaven and hell, and being good or bad. If you were good, they gave you sweets and money, and they also promised you would live in heaven if you died as a martyr.

They taught you whom to love and whom to hate, and how to use a Kalashnikov. They told you to lie down after throwing the grenade and how to strip and reassemble a gun, like in the movies. They also showed you many videos of killings and they didn’t allow you to turn away.

They taught you to declare: “I must listen and obey, even if I have to die.”

And this is how children lived, and how they played among the rifles, and how they listened and obeyed, and hated and loved.

And if anyone trusted the small voice inside their heads, the one that all children have and which always asks “but why?,” adults made sure to find a good punishment as a lesson for everyone. Children were learning it is not safe to listen to that voice. (And truly, across the world, this voice is what gets people into trouble, children and adults alike.)

-“Hurry up! You’re almost late!” – she urged him. The boy had an impulse to kiss her on the cheek, but someone could see them. So they just parted ways. He was supposed to go on a secret mission that day and he ran straight to the headquarters. For those types of missions, he was perfect, because adults chose the children who seemed most inconspicuous.

He was her hero. The girl was so curious and nervous for him that she secretly followed him and waited until he went out of the headquarters pushing his bike.

The boy was advancing with a steady pace towards one of the crowded streets of the town. He reached one corner and began to slow down. From her hiding place, she saw the explosion, an enormous dark blast which made the earth shake. She heard windows breaking and car alarms going off and the smoke, dust and flames forced her to close her eyes. She stepped out and started running back home, wanting to cry and scream but not being able to.

That night, when she had dance for the fighters, she could not stop thinking about him. He was probably already a martyr. She knew the adult world had its rules and she was not allowed to ask questions, or to question answers. She just hoped she would grow up soon.

How can we defend children’s fundamental right to ask: “but why?”

The story about the suicide detonation of the boy is real and it happened in 2014 in Afghanistan.

This post was inspired by Al-Jazeera’s documentary about ISIS in Afghanistan and their military-educational program for children. The use of children under 15 in armed conflict is considered a war crime but according to the UN around 300 000 children worldwide are recruited by governments and armed groups and are continuously exploited.

Non-government armed groups abduct or recruit children through coercion or by giving them money and protection. If the father or an older brother is a fighter, it is more probable that the child also joins the ranks. Some groups lead expansive indoctrination campaigns and seek to establish an influence in schooling systems. But the principle driver, according to Child Soldiers Intl., is poverty. 

As Mia Bloom and John Horgan explain it in the article “The Rise of the Child Terrorist,” recruitment methods used by terrorist groups “are similar to those employed by sexual predators: gaining trust and establishing rapport, fulfilling emotional needs, and then isolating a victim from family and friends. Eventually, the terrorist group begins to shift the victim’s moral viewpoint. In ISIS’ case, terrorists subject the children to violent videos, as sexual predators would expose their victims to pornography. In both scenarios, the child is made to think that violent or abnormal sexual behaviors are normal.”¹

Children in armed groups are used as messengers, spies and suicide bombers, and are frequently subjected to sexual abuse. We must stop thinking of children in military groups in terms of military exploitation of boys and sexual exploitation of girls, because both sexes are subjected to both but girl soldiers and sexually abused boys are often unrecognized and untreated.

In the training camps of groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, the Taliban, Lord’s Resistance Army and others, a new generation is being bred with the culture of violence. They are forced to watch executions and are frequently given drugs to desensitize them to violence. Children are also objects of serious indoctrination with the purpose to form them as “ideologically pure fighters” who are absolutely loyal (see this video about the children of ISIS). 

This is how the world of children becomes the projection of adults’ ideologies and children become both aggressors and victims. Researchers normally sustain that the decisions of children cannot be considered voluntary because they always act from a position of poverty, lack of knowledge and judgement and coercion,² but the anthropologist David M. Rosen sustains that this humanitarian and protectionist discourse of children as innocent, malleable and irrational victims is oversimplistic and argues that children have been active actors in places such as Palestine, Sierra Leone and Poland during the Holocaust.³ 

It is important to explore more deeply the psychology of child combatants and to adopt a more nuanced view of childhood and children’s agency: psychologist Cecilia Wainryb has conducted a very compelling study on how youths grapple with the violence they have perpetrated and how they reconcile it with their moral values. She says that they tend to experience some kind of moral disengagement and to feel confusion and distress when trying to make sense of their wrongdoings. For Wainryb, children’s capacity to restore their view of themselves as good people (moral agency construction) is crucial in order to go back and function in the social world.⁴

Traditionally, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs have preferred to include only adult male ex-combatants for the sake of efficiency and have failed to focus on women, boys and girls.⁵ Recently, there is an increasing effort to organize de-radicalization classes for Syrian child refugees who have been trained by IS, Pakistani or Afghan children trained by the Taliban, etc. These programs are meant to “deprogram them ideologically” and treat the post-traumatic stress disorder they tend to suffer after having been beaten and abused and having been forced to witness or commit crimes and violence.

Ex-combatants frequently develop a “fear network” which triggers a cascade of trauma-related memories when stimulated by only peripherally related topics. Children say their head is full of nightmares and memories and they may develop a constant alertness, aggressive outbreaks, depression, “survivor´s guilt” and substance addictions which are obstacles to their moving forward and reintegrating into society.² What is important to remember is that by taking the gun out of their hands we are far from solving the complex issues and distress in child soldiers’ minds and hearts.

I recommend: – Drawings of child soldiers which reveal many of the atrocities they have witnessed; psychologists consider these drawings as children’s attempts to gain control over the chaos – A documentary about bacha bazi, the dancing boys of Afghanistan, used for entertainment and sexual slavery


  1. Bloom, Mia, and John Horgan. “The Rise of the Child Terrorist.” Foreign Affairs 9 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
  2. Schauer, Elisabeth and Thomas Elbert. “The Psychological Impact of Child Soldering.” Trauma Rehabilitation after War and Conflict. Ed. E. Martz.  Springer Science & Business Media, 2010. 311-360.  
  3. Rosen, David M. “Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism.” Rutgers University Press, 2005.
  4. Wainryb, C. “And So They Ordered Me to Kill a Person”: Conceptualizing the Impacts of Child Soldiering on the Development of Moral Agency.” Human Development 54. 2011. 273-300.
  5. Hanson, Stephanie. “Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) in Africa.” Council on Foreign Affairs 16 Feb. 2007. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

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