Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Child Soldiers, or, Everything is Complicated

One of the most worried over groups in the world today is "child soldiers." The words summon up an awful image of boys impressed at gunpoint into pointless wars, learning brutality as they live in greater fear of their own tyrannical commanders than of their enemies, and in the end being cast aside, too psychologically damaged by a youth spent at war for any sort of productive civilian life. This narrative even appeared in the TV series "Lost."

And no doubt it is that way for many. But no category so vague as "child soldiers" really describes the lives of everyone who can be said to belong. And here we come to the experience of child soldiers in the Maoist rebel army of Nepal, which is the subject of a documentary getting attention on anthropological blogs. The filmmakers seem to be sympathetic to the rebels, but then I suppose if they weren't they would never have gotten to interview so many child rebels. And they came back with stories like this:
Asha, a girl from a Dalit Hindu caste in southern Nepal, described how she became associated with the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) -- “I was born into a poor family.” She pointed to a few pounds of cornmeal and then the one goat outside her thatched hut, “We just have this much, nothing more. I was a very good student [but] my parents told me: ‘We have no money so you have to leave school and take care of your brothers and sister.’” With few economic resources, Asha’s mother decided to pay for her brothers’ schooling rather than “waste money on a girl’s education.”

With no hope to pursue an education in her village, Asha was drawn to the Maoists women’s brigades traveling through her village. They promised girls an education and the opportunity to live in a Maoist society where men and women are treated equally. “I was 13 years old when I joined the Maoists,” Asha told me. The Maoist Army was comprised of many young women like Asha, the majority of whom joined voluntarily. For Asha and other girl soldiers, the most difficult part of being a soldier came after the war was over when they returned home. Former child soldiers, especially girl soldiers, returned to communities where they were feared, stigmatized, and vulnerable to myriad abuses.

So here we have "child soldiers" who signed up voluntarily to get away from boring, oppressive homes and felt no special anguish about their wartime experiences, and whose problem with reintegrating into civilian life is not their own psychic trauma, but how other people feel about them.

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