Wait a minute, hold it. Now think of a situation when your own children – innocent minors as young as between 9-15 years of age are recruited and then used as soldiers in an armed conflict. First, abducted and second, beaten into submission to working as combatants and sex slaves.
This is the current situation in Tigray, the northernmost regional state in Ethiopia, where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a declared terrorist group by the federal government, has for months been fighting while recruiting and enrolling minors on the battlefield for selfish and political gains.
The children are forced and fronted to work for TPLF as its fighters. Many girls joined the conflict fearing a repercussion such as rape and being sex slaves. TPLF is dragging the people of Tigray into the conflict.
Many of these children who escape narrate horrible stories of how TPLF captured and mercilessly meted all sorts of violence onto them with the soul purpose of seeing them fight with and for them, purportedly to defend Tigray, out of a feeling of revenge on the country’s federal leadership.
This evil decision of the TPLF made the children and elders the first victim of the conflict and Ethiopian government has an obligation to rescue the children.
It should be noted that the current conflict in Tigray was sparked by an unprovoked violent attack by the TPLF on Federal forces in November last year after over two years of provocation. They wanted to acquire over 80% of the National army’s possession which was in the region and illegally and forcefully change the leadership of the country.
This particular act of provocation was hard to contain as always – they went overboard. And, just like no functional state would ‘swallow’ that, that an armed terrorist group attacks military bases and walks scot-free, the federal government led by Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed responded and neutralized them.
But surprisingly, the US and the western media were quick to blame the Abiy-led government of using words like atrocities and war crimes, of course basing on the TPLF propaganda network portraying themselves as the victim.
When Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed declared a unilateral ceasefire at the end of last month and ordered all federal forces out of Tigray so as to allow residents access humanitarian support and plough land in peace without sporadic clashes with TPLF, the anticipation was that the terrorist group would cooperate but alas, their atrocities have since increased and expanded to neighboring regions like Afar and Amhara where they invaded, attacked and killed residents there.
What is more disheartening however, are are the ‘double standards’ of the U.S and the West who are now tempting many to assume that they are supporting TPLF and the violence in Tigray, basing on how they are responding to the Tigray conflict.
Look, the US was quick to blame the federal government for repulsing the terrorists who wanted to overthrow it but it has remained silent on the massive recruitment and use of child soldiers despite condemnation by Ethiopia and Ethiopians online who are using #ChildrenNotSoldiers to disapprove the act.
Media outlets such as the New York Times and the Associated Press have been condemned on social media for portraying the children as “highly motivated young recruits.”
For starters, associating young children with armed forces and groups is a crime under several international laws.
In 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict to protect children from recruitment and use in hostilities. It entered into force in 2002.
The Optional protocol is a commitment that States will not recruit children under the age of 18 to send them to the battlefield, States will not conscript soldiers below the age of 18 and that States should take all possible measures to prevent such recruitment –including legislation to prohibit and criminalize the recruitment of children under 18 and involve them in hostilities.
The protocol also provides for States to demobilize anyone under 18 conscripted or used in hostilities and will provide physical, psychological recovery services and help their social reintegration and that Armed groups distinct from the armed forces of a country should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities anyone under 18.
Human rights law declares 18 as the minimum legal age for recruitment and use of children in hostilities. Recruiting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers is prohibited under international humanitarian law – treaty and custom – and is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court.
The TPLF leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, is on record for having promised last year in November a “people’s war” in which “starting with the children, everyone will be taking part.”
This should have been enough for the US and the international community who have already pitched selves as neutral and leading advocates and defenders of human rights, to condemn the acts and stand with the children of Tigray just as they did in Uganda when Joseph Kony, leader of rebel group, LRA recruited child soldiers.
Recruitment of child soldiers by Kony justified the 2014 American foreign policy priority to hunt him down. Kony used over 60,000 children as child soldiers and sex slaves for his guerillas from 1986 to 2009, crimes which led to the displacement of millions of people.
US Osprey aircraft and 150 American air force special forces personnel swooped in to help the Ugandan Defence Forces hunt down the LRA leaders so they could be handed over the International Criminal Court.
In the same spirit, President Yoweri Museveni, a renowned Pan-africanist and freedom fighter, one who has witnessed the pain subjected to children in Northern Uganda, ought to be on the front line in rejecting meting of violence on the children of Tigray.
They are children like the rest of others in the world, they need education, love and mentorship into becoming good citizens in the future not on the battlefield.
To date, wounds and injuries of war subjected on children by Joseph Kony’s LRA are still fresh in the eyes of Ugandans. The future of most of those children was ruined, many died and others are still suffering with diseases like HIV. This should not be allowed to continue taking place in Tigray.
The country and the people of Uganda, rooting experience from use of children as soldiers by Joseph Kony, should stand firm and together to disapprove the same by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The writer is a Ugandan Journalist with passion for current African affairs.