April 29, 2003

Child soldiers forgotten in Angola

Child soldiers who fought in the Angolan civil war have been excluded from demobilization programs, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released April 29. April marks the one-year anniversary of the agreement that brought peace to mainland Angola in 2002.

Both the largest opposition group, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the government used child soldiers in the war. Children's rights groups have estimated that as many as 11,000 children were involved in the last years of the fighting. Some children received weapons and arms training and fought in the conflict. Many others acted as porters, cooks, spies and laborers. "These boys and girls have been victimized twice. First, they were robbed of their childhood as soldiers, and now they are denied access to government demobilization programs," said Tony Tate, a researcher in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "These children- especially girls- are being forgotten in post-conflict Angola."

One year after the conflict ended in mainland Angola, some UNITA soldiers who are 18 or older have been incorporated into the national army and police. Others were demobilized in a national program and have received needed assistance. But child soldiers, many of whom performed the same duties as adults, were denied these benefits. The use of children in armed conflict is in violation of Angolan and international law. Angola also has obligations to provide for the recovery and reintegration of all children affected by conflict. Beyond the hardships of war, child soldiers were deprived of educational, vocational and developmental opportunities. For these reasons, child soldiers in particular need rehabilitation programs tailored to their specific experiences. Without assistance, they risk future manipulation, and are vulnerable to being taken into military service or illegal activities.

The 26-page report, “Forgotten Fighters: Child Soldiers in Angola”, details the hardships these children faced during the war and the abuses they suffered. UNITA soldiers regularly beat children for infractions and assigned them hazardous duties. UNITA combatants also sexually abused girls and assigned them as "wives" to soldiers. The government armed forces also used boys in the war, although in smaller numbers than UNITA. Boys served as fighters as well as mechanics, radio operators and porters. Since the end of the war, child soldiers have received no direct assistance and rehabilitation in contravention of Angola's treaty obligations. Some programs have been set up to assist children generally but do not target or identify child soldiers specifically.

"Existing community-based programs provide some relief but no provisions for child soldiers," said Tate. "Programs must be established that provide for their specific needs based on their experiences as soldiers in the war." With the rainy season ending in the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of displaced Angolans will return home. Many child soldiers currently residing in camps and transit centers will also be on the move. Identifying these children now and tracing them to their communities may be the only way to include them in future programs.

The World Bank has recently granted U.S. $33 million to assist the government with the rehabilitation of former combatants. Human Rights Watch said a larger portion of this grant should be channeled to help child soldiers. Children who fought in the conflict must first be identified and recognized in order for any tangible assistance to reach them. (Human Rights Watch, Washington, DC)

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