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  • Child and/or Soldier?From Resistance Movements to Human Rights Regiments
  • Barbara Harlow (bio)

According to most estimates from the United Nations to children's rights organizations, at least 300,000 children, perhaps as many as half a million, have been actively fighting or otherwise abetting the myriad armed conflicts around the world at the beginning of the second millennium (or twenty-first century, to sound the alarm less apocalyptically), from Myanmar/ Burma to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Iraq, Uganda, Sierra Leone—and on and on. According to Vanessa Pupuvac, their multifaceted but structurally conjoined stories have occasioned a "universal concern for children" that is, Pupuvac claims, "viewed as transcending political and social divides and able to mobilise societies to confront social problems and their right to self determination" (2001, 95). That same humanitarian concern has also generated an academic bibliography, a literary genre even, of "child soldier narratives," that are acquiring, if not canonical status, at least consumer and curricular interest. Take, just as examples, Ahmadou Kourouma, Allah Is Not Obliged (2000, Liberia); China Keitetsi, Child Soldier: Fighting for [End Page 195] My Life (2002, Uganda); Emmanuel Dongala, Johnny Mad Dog (2002, West Africa); Senait Mehari, Heart of Fire: From Child Soldier to Soul Singer (2004, Ethiopia/Eritrea); Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation (2005, Nigeria); Delia Jarrett-Macauley, Moses, Citizen and Me (2005, Sierra Leone); Dave Eggers, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006, Sudan/ United States); Chris Abani, Song for Night (2007, West Africa); and Joshua Dysart, Unknown Soldier (2009, Uganda).

Although the outrageously popular and even literary currency of these accumulating narratives might well, as Alexandra Schultheis has noted, derive from the fact that the "terms defining the relationship between humanitarian and 'victim' depend on global structural inequalities, masked by a discourse of universalized childhood" (2008, 35), their very purveyance also traces a well-nigh paradigmatic historical trajectory of the "once upon a time" genre: once there were children, then they became soldiers, now, please, if you will, just bring back the children. But where will they go, these disarmed and conflict-scarred youth? Who would want the "memoirs of a boy soldier" on a syllabus? Or a former "boy soldier" in the neighborhood? As Vera Achvarina and Simon Reich have advised, the "increasing use of child soldiers poses a long-term threat to the health and security of societies far beyond the borders of the war-torn fragile states in which these civil and ethnic conflicts take place" (2006, 130). Ninety miles from the continental United States, one of those child soldiers sits in prison in Guantánamo Bay.

Just over a week before his inauguration on January 20, 2009, five prominent human rights organizations wrote to then president-elect Barack Obama regarding the immanent military trial of Guantánamo detainee Omar Khadr. "Dear President-elect Obama," wrote the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Human Rights First, and Human Rights Watch,

We write to you regarding Omar Khadr, the 22-year-old Canadian national slated to be tried by military commission at Guantánamo for crimes allegedly [End Page 196] committed when he was aged 15. If the trial, now scheduled for January 26, 2009, is allowed to go forward, Omar Khadr, as noted by the letterwriter and the detainee's advocates, will become the first person in recent years to be tried by any western nation for war crimes committed as a child.

Newly inaugurated President Obama did indeed, on his first full day in office, suspend Khadr's military trial—along with the pending hearings of twenty other Guantánamo detainees—for 120 days, in order, or so it was said by administration spokespeople, to "review the process."

Omar, gently dubbed "Guantanamo's child" by Canadian journalist Michelle Shephard (2008), was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan on July 27, 2002—the sole, if seriously injured, survivor from inside a house of alleged al-Qaeda militants following a firefight that left one U.S. soldier dead as well. Whether Omar Khadr was responsible for the death of Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer, an allegation that remains still...


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