'Innocents Lost': Saving Child Soliders Child soldiers are still very much a fact of life in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and much of Africa. The U.N. is attempting to lure some of these soldiers into schools, but the phenomenon remains a global scourge.

'Innocents Lost': Saving Child Soliders

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Child soldiers are a fact of life in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and several African nations. The United States government fears these soldiers could become a real threat to Africa's stability. Journalist Jimmie Briggs is a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. For years now the UN has been working to combat the use of child soldiers in war. He's also the author of the book "Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War." Briggs tells our correspondent Farai Chideya why military and paramilitary commanders use children to fight.

Mr. JIMMIE BRIGGS (Author, "Innocents Lost"): Children tend to be more plentiful. They're a readily available pool of possible recruits. And also the thing with kids, Farai, is that they're much more pliable than adults. I mean, they can be made to do things which might give pause, or which adults might not be compelled into doing. I think we've seen that, particularly in places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, where if--you know, the youngest soldiers were the ones committing the most horrific acts--mutilations, amputations, sexual assaults against women and young girls.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

You tell the story of Francois Menone(ph). Who was he and what happened to him?

Mr. BRIGGS: Francois, like so many Rwandan youths, was, unfortunately, caught up in the frenzy of the genocide, and he was a teen-ager who happened to be half Tutsi and half Hutu. And in the context of the Hutu-led genocide, he was forced to choose, choose where his--he was--his allegiances lie, where he was committed to be identified. And when the marauders came to his home, his village, he was forced to kill the children of his sister, who themselves were half Hutu and half Tutsi. You know, the story of young people, children in the genocide is largely a forgotten one. It was actually young people who committed some of the most horrible acts that took place in those 100 days.

CHIDEYA: This isn't confined to Africa, although there are several conflicts with child soldiers. You talk about Sri Lanka.

Mr. BRIGGS: Much well before the tsunami, which hit south Asia last year, Sri Lanka had been dealing with an ongoing civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. The Tigers are sort of infamous, notorious, if you will, for their suicide bombing tactics. Many of the suicide bombers, who are a part of the Tigers, are, in fact, young girls, or women, and the Tigers are also unique, you know, in--compared to other places where children are used, in the sense that they are properly trained and, unlike in many other places, particularly in Africa, women or girl soldiers are not sexually molested, assaulted. If you're a female Tamil Tiger, then your gender, sexual well-being is protected by the Tigers. Rapes and sexual assaults are not allowed.

CHIDEYA: Now you have yourself been appointed a goodwill ambassador. Tell us exactly what that position is and what you're going to be doing.

Mr. BRIGGS: I'll be sort of speaking as an advocate for the UN. Not only educating people about the work of the United Nations but also encouraging them to support the organization in its--in the area of children and armed conflict. I mean, there are a number of UN agencies--UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and others--which are dealing with conflict-affected children, not just child soldiers, but also refugees, orphans, victims of sexual violence. And this--in the capacity of goodwill ambassador, I hope to encourage people, and educate them, about the different ways in which children are being assisted by the United Nations.

CHIDEYA: Much of this can seem remote to people in the United States. But in Los Angeles there have been a spate of gang killings, and there are young people being born into gangs, because their parents are members, who have to fight, who have to sign up or who are conscripted into a sort of war. Is there any parallel?

Mr. BRIGGS: It was actually that parallel, in fact, which sort of led me to starting this project. Prior to beginning the research for the book, I'd been doing stories, looking at various aspects of juvenile violence. And I think the phenomena here, in this country, of children being, you know, coerced into joining gangs, is perfectly--a perfect analogy to what happens overseas, and I think what happens overseas, though--it's more dramatic. It's--you know, in some ways it's an extension of what happens here where a total breakdown has happened in society and that there's no recourse, there's no way out in some--any situation for these kids other than being drawn into the conflict.

CHIDEYA: Jimmie Briggs is a journalist and author of the book "Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War." To hear him reading an excerpt from the book and to see the picture of the Liberian child soldier mentioned, visit npr.org.

Thank you for joining us, Jimmie.

Mr. BRIGGS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.

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