Child Fighters in Communal Wars

“I killed with a home-made pistol, I shot them at close range; we paraded the corpses around as it gave us the strength to fight harder”, recalled Ronald Reagan, a former Christian child militia leader. His Muslim counterpart, Iskander Slameth, acknowledged, “we were very sadistic”. The BBC World Service Indonesia journalist Endang Nurdin recently reported on Indonesia’s child soldiers, but she did not report from the province of Aceh, where a long and deadly civil war ended in 2005. Nurdin visited the much lesser known town of Ambon, the capital of Maluku province in eastern Indonesia, where children took part in the fighting and killing alongside ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ militia groups. In a documentary published by BBC’s The Fifth Floor, the journalist acknowledged she previously did not know about child fighters in her own country, assuming that they were only part of conflicts on the African continent.

After the ousting of Indonesia’s long-time military ruler General Suharto, and in the wake of democratization, communal conflicts in Maluku province escalated to a local ‘religious war’, killing at least 3,000 people in 1999 – 2002. I analyse the Maluku conflict in my book, “Resilient Communities: Non-Violence and Civilian Agency in Communal War”. My book demonstrates how communities sought to protect themselves in the context of weak and failing security forces, sometimes by building non-violent and resilient communities, and often by tolerating militias in their midst. When communal conflicts escalate to the level of a civil war, they are often fought between heavily armed and well-organized militias. Large-scale communal conflicts have killed thousands in countries such as Nigeria, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Child fighters are a common feature because entire communities are drawn into escalating conflict dynamics and militarize, with militia leaders holding positions of authority and control. One pastor I interviewed recalled how a militia leader intimidated her: “aren’t you willing to give your children for Jesus?”

The legacies of such community militarization and its implications for peacebuilding have rarely been explored. In Ambon, some of the religious leaders who allowed militias to mobilise through their churches and mosques and even blessed the men who went into battle came together in local peace programs after the war. More than a decade after the 2002 peace agreement, they have trained youth leaders and some of the former child fighters to become ‘peace provocateurs’, supporting the region’s fragile peace. Many former child fighters continue to suffer from their traumatic experiences. During the war, they slept in mosques and churches, praised by their communities for their bravery, and received food donated from families struggling themselves to survive. After the war, however, the former child fighters were often shunned and seen as troublemakers. Some of them have become drivers and bus conductors, soldiers or policemen, but others continued life as petty criminals, selling their ability to wield violence to politicians and other ‘big men’. Local peace programs have tried to reach them with counselling and arts programs, offering music and poetry workshops to support emotional healing. Some community and religious leaders seek to support these young men with acceptance and respect to render them less vulnerable to those who may want to mobilise them again for future fighting.

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