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June/July 2006
Kids in Conflict: When Children Become Soldiers
The Satya Interview with Jimmie Briggs

Jimmie Briggs and his daughter Mariela. Photo: Damaso Reyes

Imagine a child who has held an AK-47 but never a pencil, or a young girl who enlists in armed forces to protect herself from rape; children forced to commit acts of genocide, and sometimes, murder their own families. As young as six, children from all over the world engage in armed battles due to coercion, but sometimes voluntarily because of a lack of basic necessities and alternatives.

In Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War (Basic Books, 2005), journalist Jimmie Briggs captures these stories. Over the course of six years, Briggs ventured across five countries to expose different aspects of children in war. He looks at Rwanda to explore what happens when societies hold children accountable, Colombia to show the psychological trauma and rehabilitation of former soldiers, Sri Lanka to gain the perspectives of women and girls in combat, Uganda to give voice to the teachers and families of abducted children, and brings it home to Afghanistan, where children have been responsible for the deaths of American soldiers.

Through it all Briggs writes with respect and humility, trying to frame war from the perspectives of children caught between rebel and government forces. He depicts what it is like to be a kid born into conflicts not of their own creation. His travels to training camps, rehabilitation centers, and combat-torn villages offer a unique view into the extraordinary circumstances faced by child soldiers.

Briggs’s research takes a huge emotional toll on him, but he can’t help being drawn to these issues. His future book projects will explore gender based violence and the impact of war on women, the effect of war on the environment, in terms of the destruction of ecological systems and the exploitation of natural resources, and the deadly legacy of the traffic of small arms.

Taking a break from the Tribeca Film Festival, Jimmie Briggs met with Sangamithra Iyer in a small West Village café to discuss the lost innocence of children in combat.

Can you tell us how you got involved in a six-year journey of researching child soldiers?
This project began years before I actually started it. I’d been a freelance writer and on staff at Life Magazine, and I was doing a lot of stories on juvenile violence and gang culture in the U.S. In 1997, I was sent to the Congo—then called Zaire—by Life. That’s when I first encountered child soldiers. After that month-long experience, I came back to the U.S. with the idea of doing a bigger project. There seemed to be a lack of progression from looking at juvenile violence here to looking at juvenile violence internationally with the experience of child soldiers. After that first trip to the Congo, I knew that this would be my first book.

In Innocents Lost, you talk about how children can be abducted and forcibly recruited into militaries, but that in some cases they “volunteer.” Can you talk about the reasons why some children “enlist” to be soldiers?
Children “enlist” because of a combination of things. From my experience talking to girl soldiers, safety is a big issue. In general, girls and women are susceptible to sexual violence, to rape. A number of girls from a number of countries joined voluntarily out of a sense of protection.

There are also economic reasons. Yes, you are at risk of being killed, but when your family is poor or you don’t have parents, you get food [in the militia], and it is a substitute for a family unit. In that respect, it parallels the experience of gang members here in this country—that idea of belonging, of community, of family.

I also think, as was the case in Sri Lanka, there was a strong sense of nationalism. In many places there is an indoctrination to entice kids to join out of a sense of ethnic identity, religious identity or national group pride.

What are the typical roles of child soldiers? Why are children targeted for recruitment?
In many conflict communities, children are the majority of the population, [and can be] viewed as expendable and used as human shields. Also, most people are less suspicious of a child than they are of an adolescent or an adult, so children make very effective spies and scouts. They can go in situations and not be looked at twice.

Also, weapons used in modern conflict are so light, so basic, that [even] a small child can carry an AK-47. At the same time, kids generally are less inhibited about doing certain things. Some of the worst stories I’ve heard of combat have been a result of what kids have done. There is more of a susceptibility to committing an atrocity with a child, because they are not thinking about the consequences of their actions. There is a huge gulf in terms of moral development between someone who is 18 versus someone who is 10.

You mention that some of the kids have never held a pencil but have held an AK-47, and you describe a condition in Sri Lanka where a generation of children knows nothing but war. What does that do to a child?
It makes one’s sense of hope or even possessing hope a fleeting thing. It is very difficult for children to conceive of a future without war, a future of not being a soldier, of not being killed or killing someone else. One’s possibilities are not lost, but being a child soldier definitely crushes one’s innocence. It’s irrevocable. That’s probably one of the most tragic things I encountered—that loss of innocence at such an early age and the necessary hardness that takes place [in] one’s spirit and soul to survive, to cope.

This is a heavy issue, but there is hope, there are solutions. It’s not something that is too big or we can’t address.

And what are the solutions?
There is a lack of clarity about what exactly the rules of war are. Often people don’t know what the prohibitions or protections are for kids who live in conflict situations. I would ask people—communities, parents and government officials—about their awareness of international law [regarding] child soldiers. Very few understood what the Convention on the Rights of the Child was—very few had heard [of its] Optional Protocol [on the involvement of children in armed conflict].

I also think our government has the potential to make great headway in this area through funding or defunding countries where child soldiers exist. There have been no treaties, no military or relief efforts made which include the protection of children. When the U.S. sells arms, or mediates or negotiates an economic package with an African, Asian or Latin American country, there is never a condition that says the country must take effective measures to protect their children in conflict, to demobilize kids or ensure there are no kids in official armed forces.

One of the most important lessons I learned from doing this book is that children and women are really afterthoughts in conflict. Programmatically and policy-wise, their voices and experiences aren’t listened to. No one asks children how they feel about conflict—not even their families or commanders or peers. They don’t even talk about the impact of war within themselves. So with me coming in and expressing sincere interest, it was very easy to get them to talk about these painful traumatic situations.

I also think the issue of small arms is huge. People like to ask me what countries can make a difference—I always turn it back and say, what countries are on the UN Security Council? You have to pressure those countries because they are the biggest producers and exporters of small arms in the world. [I’m not] saying you can’t make weapons, but there must be greater control of their traffic and trade. Too many weapons are flowing illegally to war-affected areas. The case of Charles Taylor in Liberia is a great example of that. These weapons inevitably end up in the hands of child soldiers.

There were times I felt very ashamed. I would meet kids who were carrying American-made weapons. In a few places people confronted me about it saying, your country is making these weapons that are killing us. That is an aspect of global conflict that we really don’t hear about in this country. We send this stuff out to the world without wondering where it goes or how it is used and on whom it is used.

In your chapter about the boy who killed the first U.S. soldier in Afghanistan you wrote that the concern in the U.S about child soldiers seems to be one of two things. One, they are a danger, because they are young and angry and two, the psychological impact it has on our soldiers encountering kids in the field. It is still from a very American interest point of view and not about the well-being of these kids elsewhere.
Yes it is. With going to Afghanistan to find the boy who killed the first American soldier, there were times I regret not going further to try meeting his family. The people who were helping me said it was incredibly risky for them [if] they met with me. As a journalist, if I had been on assignment, my editor would have killed me for not going all the way. But I wanted to respect where I was, the people who were helping me, and this young boy whose story I was in search of, but never met. It would be very easy to vilify the Afghani people and this boy, [but] I wanted to understand and try to see war how they see it. In this country in particular, we rarely do that. We dehumanize people. We see that in Afghanistan and Iraq every day. We don’t really see them as human beings. We see them as potential terrorists.

In your book, you mention various rehab programs and facilities that demobilize child soldiers. What are your thoughts on this process? Is it effective?
Rehabilitation efforts are crucial to rebuilding societies where child soldiers have been present. [But] many of the international organizations are very condescending; there is a cultural bias against local customs and traditions. That is a huge issue. I think the most effective ones incorporate local customs, traditional healing and reconciliation.

Every personal experience is not the same, so every child is not going to react the same. You have to be flexible to react to each child’s needs. Those needs also have to be met in collaboration with the local community. Programs that put kids back into the community sooner, and continue working with them to help the child heal and get educated, are the best programs. It doesn’t help to [isolate] kids in a facility for months or years at a time. That further stigmatizes them and makes it much more difficult for them to be reintegrated back into the community.

Some of the better programs I found were in Uganda and Colombia. One, operated by the International Rescue Committee in northern Uganda, does tremendous work with the local community to help children heal and get past this trauma and stigma. The biggest program in Colombia was run by the government. They use play therapy and [incorporated] the literature of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They sent staff members to other countries in Africa and Asia where there were rehabilitation programs and took the best of all these programs.

The important thing to remember is there has to be psychosocial counseling and some sort of vocational training or educational pathway for the child. Otherwise they can’t sustain themselves and end up being street kids or criminals. Or in the worst-case scenario, they can be rerecruited to go back into war as a seasoned veteran.

There was something that reminded me of A Clockwork Orange, when I was reading some parts of the book. While you rehabilitate kids, will society accept them again?
[Laughs.] In many places communities do accept kids. If the person can’t go back home it is typically for safety reasons, which is the case in Colombia. In Uganda too, because kids will either be killed or rerecruited. But I was surprised by the degree to which families and communities accept kids back. I mean, Rwanda was a perfect case of that: most kids were able to go back home, even if they took part in the genocide, after they had gone through a rehabilitation program.

And what about you? How do you cope with witnessing this trauma?
Uh-Oh… No, I’m glad you asked that question. When I go to schools, I’m often asked what it was like. I consistently try to down-play it. Doing this book can sound very romantic to high school students so I try to de-romanticize it. I talk about the fact I was severely traumatized from doing this book and it really damaged my personal life. And really, I’m still sort of recovering from it.

Before I started this project, I didn’t have a healing process. I didn’t know how to prepare myself for what I was about to see. In the field of journalism you are affected by stories that you cover, but there is a reluctancy to talk about it. I was very traumatized but didn’t know it and couldn’t admit it. It manifests itself through extreme temperamental mood swings, nightmares, flashbacks and shakes—even today, coming here from the Tribeca Film Festival. My friend is pitching this documentary project [based on the book] and an hour ago we were talking about it, and my hand was shaking. It’s a struggle within myself. I’m trying to get to a place of resolution and healing within myself. At the same time, I have a daughter, and I’m just trying to be a good healthy parent for her. But then also, being drawn to these issues, unwillingly almost. The next book is going to be on gender violence and war. There is reluctance inside of me to go back into this situation, but at the same time, I feel on some level called to do it. I feel like I can do it respectfully and truthfully and honestly. Maybe a part of me feels like, for better or worse, this is what I’m good at.

My naïve hope is that my contribution as a journalist will make people look at war in a different way. Really shift the focus. As I often tell younger students, we haven’t figured out how to stop damaging our world. I’m here because I want you all to try and figure out some answers.

How did being a parent affect this project?
[My daughter] was born three years into the book, and it definitely changed everything. On one hand, the rational response would have been for me to become more cautious. I can’t say that I took fewer risks, but on a certain level it sort of reinforced what was at stake, in terms of these kids and childhood. Being a parent drew me closer to the parents whose kids were fighting. Somehow I became more emotionally invested in the welfare of the kids whom I was writing about and invested in getting the stories out there. I understand now how far we must go to protect their childhood, their lives. It became a race, too, because in a way, I wanted to finish it. I didn’t want to keep going away. I didn’t want to keep missing out on things as she got older. I felt I was being selfish for a long time by not being there consistently. There was a lot of guilt. I always went into a situation thinking, I can’t do anything that is going to take away my daughter’s father.

The sense of guilt also reminds me of what you say in the beginning of your book, “If a dying man tells you his story, there’s an obligation to pass it on. This book is my attempt not only to tell their stories but also to make people care enough to do something about this scourge.” What can people do?
One thing I’m very excited about is working with Amnesty International on a curriculum for high school students. It was done in collaboration with the national education association and is going to 50,000 high schools across the country. The hope is that these teachers will use the book in the classroom and reach a population that can really effect some change. [I look] with a lot of awe at the student-led efforts around Darfur, immigration and the night commuters in northern Uganda.

There’s an openness, there’s a craving to be a part of something bigger. There are so many parallels with what we deal with here in terms of violence. I think it can be attractive to young people learning about this in school, and taking this knowledge outside the classroom to do action. A few months ago, I spoke to a fourth grade class in Brooklyn. I read from the chapter on Rwanda and talked about a young child soldier in Colombia and it resonated. A number of students said it’s like what they go through here. [One student said] ‘I’ve seen someone shot.’ Others said ‘I’ve heard gunshots,’ or ‘I’ve seen guns,’ or ‘I’ve lost this person in my family to violence.’ There was one girl from Liberia who related to these themes of war and childhood in a very personal way.

They were so curious about what other kids were going through. It connected them to kids in countries they never heard of whose names maybe they could not pronounce. But they realized that they weren’t alone, that someone else in the world goes through this. They [started asking] how do they deal with violence, and how do they deal with people getting shot? It made me think, wow, if we could start planting the seeds early to make our young people aware of issues like this, and just draw the parallels and let the experiences resonate, they will be motivated to have dialogues, to talk about it, and figure out how to address these problems in their respective communities.

I was wondering if you’ve been in touch with some of the people in the book and if they have read it?
I have. The people I’m most in touch with are in Uganda and Rwanda. In Colombia, most of the people don’t speak English, but I want to personally take the books back to them so they see that their time with me wasn’t in vain. The people I dealt with in Sri Lanka have seen the book and everyone [said] you got it right. No one said this is wrong or you misrepresented my story, but [thanked me] for passing on these stories, which for me is very empowering and fuel for the next project. Knowing that I did succeed in being respectful in honoring and recognizing their experiences—that is the blessing of doing this book for me.

What gives you hope?
[Laughs.] Hope within myself comes in ebbs and flows. Some weeks I don’t have it, but then I reflect on people in the book and the response to the book, and that carries me through. The fact that they had hope in me to tell me their stories, and let me in their lives, that feeds me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share what I have seen, what I have learned.

To find out more about Jimmie Briggs visit To learn more about child soldiers go to For information on curriculum materials see

Join Us!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Sharing the Stories of Child Soldiers: An Evening with Jimmie Briggs

Meet journalist Jimmie Briggs and learn about his investigation into the lives of child soldiers. Join Satya for a photo presentation and discussion of Jimmie’s book Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War. [See Interview]

7pm, Bluestockings Bookstore, 172 Allen St between Stanton and Rivington. Free. Info:; 718-832-9557.


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