Though it is difficult to say for sure how many child soldiers have been recruited worldwide given the fluctuating trend of armed conflicts. Human Rights Watch estimates (HRW) that between 200 000 and 300 000 children are currently serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in armed conflicts across the globe.
The latest recruitment had come from Mali, where Islamist fighters of Ansar-Dine, Mujao and al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb have been accused of recruiting underage girls and boys into their ranks, and placing them on the frontline, as they try to find their way to the capital Bamako to overthrow the government and impose Sharia Law.
“These Islamist groups have no business recruiting children into their ranks, much less putting them on the frontline,” HRW senior West Africa researcher Corinne Dufka said last week, calling on Mali rebel groups to free all child soldiers they have rallied into their cause.
“These groups seem to be willfully putting scores of children directly in harm’s way. Before the military campaign goes any further, the Islamists should release these children back to their families,” an incensed Dufka added.
HRW did not specify the number of child soldiers currently serving in Mali Islamist ‘armies’, but some independent sources put the number at over 1000, including underage girls who were forced to get married to some Islamist chiefs.
Some of children were recruited in Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal and lately in Konna, a town seized by Islamists for a few days from 10 January – a move that triggered France to launch aerial counter-attacks to chase the rebels out and give the town back to the Malian army.
One Konna resident told HRW: “The Islamists arrived in about 10 Land Cruisers. After the fighting died down, we went to the entrance of town to see them. I was shocked to see about a dozen children among them, several were only 12 or 13 years old, all armed with big guns, and working alongside the big men.”
Another witness interviewed by HRW said: “These so-called Islamists are sending our innocents to be slaughtered in the name of Jihad…I ask you, what kind of Islam is this?”
The New York-based human rights organisation urged rebel groups to remove children immediately from training bases in or near Islamist military installations, and cease all recruitments of underage children into their ranks.
*Photo by Bulawayo24.