In a poor country devastated by nine years of civil war, a guerrilla army is conducting a campaign of death and mutilation so unrelenting it is called "No Living Thing." Thousands of those conscripted to carry out this violence are children. This is a hell on earth, a place where a young girl, hands cut off at the wrist and tied to her waist by another child, is sent walking as a living billboard advertising the end of hope and compassion. It is a place of deadly play.
I once taught drama in the converted ballroom of a private Catholic elementary school in New York. The children's favorite game was an ongoing battle between the forces of Good and Evil. The Good were led by a magic Wizard, the Evil were led by a wicked General, and the children shifted allegiances readily, exploring both sides. They savored conducting merciless attacks on one another and constructing make-believe torture rooms.
The highlight of play occurred when someone from either side was killed. The children made a circle and, under the direction of the Wizard, sang the dead child back to life. Then the battle continued. New episodes were invented until the bell that marked the end of the class. Exhausted and happy the children gathered to retell their adventures before leaving for math, religion or history.
Not one of these children, nor I, could have imagined that at the same time thousands of children of the same age, armed with guns and machetes, were being sent into real battles to kill and be killed, with no one to sing them back to life.
"No Living Thing" is the motto of rebel forces in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Eighty percent of the guerrillas are thought to be children between the ages of five and seventeen. Born into violence, raised as killers, they are trained to commit mutilation and murder. Like all children, they learn by example: adults force them to witness atrocities before taking them to neighboring villages to do it themselves.
This situation is unique only in its brutality: the use of children as soldiers is on the increase in many parts of the world. The United Nations estimates the number of child soldiers globally at more than 300,000, up from 250,000 two years ago. At the same time, the age of the children is decreasing: children as young as four are seen using the weapons of war.
The statistics: Ten percent of an estimated 60,000 combatants in Liberia may be children; at least twenty percent in El Salvador; ten percent in Afghanistan. Nearly seventy percent of Palestinian children are believed to have participated in acts of political violence. And so on.
The justifications: Children make the best soldiers because they carry out orders without question. Having lost families and suffering from trauma, they find security in the army. Small children, knowing nothing other than violence, will fight until they die. They make better spies and messengers because of their size. They do not ask for salaries. Children can be used as human shields or sent ahead of armies to test for landmines.
UNICEF concludes that the proliferation of child soldiers also arises from the ease of using light and devastating weapons. The AK 47 can be stripped and reassembled by a child of ten.
In her groundbreaking 1996 U.N. report, Graca Michal wrote, "More and more of the world is being sucked into a desolate moral vacuum. This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped, and maimed; a space in which children are exploited as soldiers....There are few further depths to which humanity can sink."
In the fall of 1997 I worked as a facilitator for "Children's Voices," a UNICEF conference at the United Nations at which children from twenty-three countries spoke. There I met an orphaned former child soldier from West Africa. At the time, he was fifteen years old. He wrote songs about peace and longed for an education. I stayed in close contact with him afterward, and after a difficult process, brought him to this country to build a new life. Because he is still young, he chooses to remain anonymous; here is some of his story.
"When I was eleven years old my parents and brothers were killed in the civil war. I hid for eight months. Often alone, living in trees in the bush, hardly eating, I suffered from malnutrition. I was told that if I joined the forces I could have food, and take revenge for the death of my family. I was also told that if I did not become a soldier I would be killed.
"I had no choice. I became a soldier. I learned to shoot a gun. That was my training. Then I was sent into my first battle. All around me people were dying. In front of me people were dying. I could not imagine killing a human being, but a grown man kept shouting at me, "Shoot! Shoot!" Then I shot. I killed for the first time. And I was no longer of this world."
I asked him what he lost in those years of being a soldier, besides the obvious losses of family and home. He answered, "I lost my self in the war, my self, my image, my sense of feeling for myself and other children. I lost my ability to think before doing. I just kept going.
"That's what happens to every child soldier. Children are the best soldiers because they can be used to do whatever you ask them to do. The grown-ups give you drugs and torture you. The littlest children usually get killed. They have no maturity. Their minds are all mixed up and they will never give up until they die. They think that the only way to live is to fight.
"When the war broke out everyone became stupid and did not think. Because of guns and trauma and drugs you cannot think. Adults need to raise their children with the idea of forgiveness, not revenge. Otherwise it will never stop."
I asked him how he was able to leave the army. He explained that the children were never left alone, so that they had no chance to think. "Once I was in the bush alone. I do not know where it came from, but I had a thought that I was no longer a good boy. Then it went away."
Later, when there were no battles, U.N. workers came looking for child soldiers to encourage them to undergo detraumatization. "I was not normal. I was crazy. I did not want to stop fighting. But I recognized one of the men. He was from my village. He saw me. When he recognized me he said, "Oh My God!" His face was very sad. I realized I was no longer a good child. "What am I doing?" I asked myself. It was later that I went for detraumatization. It was very hard. It was very painful to become a normal human being again, because I had to feel, remember and dream again.
"Some child soldiers in the future will change. But it will take a long time. It is hard to find people who really care about us and are willing to work with us. We were not normal. These children who do not get help will end up in a bad situation because they do not think before they act. So you see, in the future there will be more trouble."
What story in the world best describes the atrocity of turning children into killers? What story offers some clues of redemption, or of understanding of this awful wound in the psyche of the world? Perhaps it is the wild destruction unleashed by Dionysus, God of ecstasy and the vine.
Dionysus, twice born child, wearing two masks, reveals the darkest possibilities of human nature-and the most joyous. At the height of his murderous frenzy arises the birth of song; a natural stream of light evolves from the unrelenting darkness of murder and death.
Thinking about his cult, I have sought some medicine for the depravity of turning children into soldiers in the world today. Knowing such darkness, can they become protectors of peace and compassion? Knowing about them, can we face our own shadows and liberate kindness without judgement? Can we find a place for these children in our world.
A country like Sierra Leone, whose unnatural borders were created by colonial powers who disregarded tribal traditions and hierarchies, was once infused by rituals and myths that included awareness of both the dark and the light. Tremendous energy went into rites of passage which brought children into contact with the realms of ancestors, spirits and demons, both good and evil.
But colonial powers ignored this process of rebalancing life and devalued the transmutation of dark forces within and without. Where did the suppressed shadows go? Perhaps, unacknowledged or contained by myth and ritual, these dark forces arose as the displays of evil and destruction that plague Africa today.
At the U.N. conference, the boy was given five minutes to speak about the children of his country. He brought the room to silence.
"I joined the forces because of the loss of my parents and hunger. It is not easy to be a soldier, but we just had to do it." Putting down his paper, he looked around and smiled shyly. "I am reintegrated. You don't have to be afraid of me. I am not a soldier anymore. Now I am a child. We are all brothers and sisters."
Sitting straight, radiating dignity, he continued: "This is what I have learned and want to say: revenge is not good. I killed to revenge the death of my parents. But if I continue to revenge, if another is killed and then another, then there will only be more revenge and it will never come to an end."
Following the children's presentations, a journalist asked a girl from Albania: "What are the causes of war?" She answered gently, "We are more interested in what are the causes of peace."
According to a folk tale from Zimbabwe, the origin of murder is the death of a child: "A mother left her baby beneath a tree while she worked in the field. When it cried, a large eagle landed on the child. The bird comforted the baby, and it stopped crying. Every day when the baby cried, the eagle comforted it.
"When the mother told her husband, he did not believe her. He went out to the field. The eagle flew to the crying baby. The husband grew afraid. He lifted his bow and shot at the bird. The eagle flew away, but the baby was killed. That was the first murder. Since that time people have killed each other."
The man did not trust the word of the mother; he did not trust the natural world. I told the story to the boy. He said softly, "No one thinks. In your mind you know you are doing something wrong, but few people want to stop or apologize. Some people do not listen to their mind. They are too proud to feel."
He described the painful process of detraumatization as a coming back to this world, a harrowing reawakening of feeling, thinking, sensing and remembering.
"You know, in war all of nature is lost. You cannot hear the sounds of the bush or the birds. You only hear gunshots. When you walk through empty villages it is so sad. No birds sing. Even the buildings begin to collapse without human warmth or the sounds of nature. It is a terrible silence."
In her U.N. report, Graca Michal called for an immediate, global demobilization of child soldiers. She asked all armies to create "peace zones" for children. In a personal note at the end of her presentation, she added, "Above all else, this process has strengthened my conviction that we must do anything and everything to protect children, to give them priority and a better future. This is a call to embrace a new morality that places children where they belong-at the heart of all agendas. Ask yourselves what you can do to make a difference. Then take action, no matter how large or how small, for our children have a right to peace."
Laura Simms is a storyteller and writer based in New York. Her most recent book is Rotten Teeth (Houghton-Mifflin) and her most recent CD is "Four Legged Stories" (Lyrichord Records). She is among the performers at the U.N. Human Rights Celebration in Oslo in December