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Music Cues: Children at War
Scott Simon
January 29, 2000

Scott Simon commentary on child soldiers

The most hideous and haunting picture of the week must be of those two, twelve year-old twin boys, Johnny and Luther Htoo, the leaders of a Burmese rebel group called God's Army, standing barely taller than their rifles and dragging bitter puffs out of their cheroot cigarettes. God's Army took about 700 people hostage in a hospital in Ratchaburi, Thailand this week, before being run back into the jungle by the Thai army.

Johnny and Luther have been rebel soldiers since they were nine. The Burmese army launched an offensive against their Keren tribal village along the thorny border between Thailand and Burma, slaughtering and raping hundreds. The saga that has grown up around the boy's bony shoulders is that Johnny and Luther, however, could not be killed. Bullets, they said, fell away from their small, frail chests. Land mines languished under their small, light feet. The Keren are fundamentalist Christians, fighting for autonomy against Burma's military dictatorship; and they made what amounts to icons of twin boys who were, of course, merely lucky--not immortal.

The picture that appeared in newspapers around the world this week shows two long-haired twins who faces seem to reflect, like dramatic masks, different sides of the same crime. Johnny's face looks blinking and mournful, Luther's seems clenched and bitter.

"Why should we cry?" Johnny was quoted as asking photographers. "Boys do not cry." The Burmese army destroyed their homes and childhoods; and then their own Keren people may have taken their innocence.

The accomplished documentary filmakers, Alan and Susan Raymond, have a film premiering on HBO early next week which dramtically depicts many children whose lives have been captured by war and terrorism. Children at War is so searing, you are sometimes moved to look away--knowing that when you have recovered the strength to look back at the screen, there are plenty of tragedies remaining on the reel ahead. An eleven year-old Tutsi boy who was smuggled into the woods by his parents, sees his mother and father murdered by Hutu militia. It is not surprising when he picks up a gun to avenge their deaths. But you may wonder how many deaths it will take--how many people that young boy will kill--to fill up his emptiness.

The sad and despicible fact is that dictators and terrorists have discovered that children make good soldiers. They can be young and strong, clever and fearless. They can trust utterly, and risk their lives without frightful hesitation because they have not yet lived long enough to learn they can die, like everybody else.

One of the many crimes of war is that it takes the power of children's innocence and twists it into their hearts.