Invisible soldiers

By 

MICHAEL A. BENGWAYAN 

in the Philippines

Basilan (December 25, 2002):  "Where have all the young boys gone, Gone to soldiers everyone", so goes the popular folk song of the 60's. Today, not much has changed. Boys are still turning into young guns.

In this island bastion of the terrorist Abu Sayaff and in many places in Mindanao, young lads as well as girls are shunning schools and joining rebel military training camps.

The exodus of children going for training and war as combatants was noted by the British development group Oxfam. It said a growing number of Muslim schoolchildren are dropping out from schools and finding their way to the world of armed conflict.

In a study done early this year called "Impact of Conflict and Displacement on Children and their Education in Mindanao", Oxfam disclosed that the relentless fighting in war-torn areas of the island have led to increased number of rebels who came from the ranks of drop-out Muslim students.

"There is an extremely low school attendance among Muslim children", Oxfam said, raising an alarm that "in high conflict areas, female students usually outnumber their male counterparts".

Dropout rate in the elementary level in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the Mindanao provinces with majority Muslim population is more than 25 per cent, three times the national average, the Department of Education said.

Philippine Muslims are fighting for a separate homeland in Mindanao, the country's second largest island in the south. The war for a Muslim nation is being led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which has 15,000 armed followers.

The war in Mindanao has already cost more than 150,000 lives and displacement of more than four million people since 1971. The island is rich in natural resources but poverty prevails in most Muslim provinces because of government negligence and corruption.

Much of the land and resources are owned by few Christian settlers and many politicians. The Muslims and lumads are the native people of Mindanao but most are now pushed back in the remaining frontiers.

Lan Mercado Carreon, Oxfam representative to the Philippines was quick to say however that it is not only the war that is causing high drop-out rate but creeping poverty and declining food security level.

She added that psychological trauma caused by the war and the atrocities makes it difficult for the students to concentrate on studying, thus opting to leave school.

There are 150,028 families representing 797,838 persons adversely affected by the war in Mindanao, according to the Department of Social Welfare (DSW). Most of these are Muslim families, it said. In Sulu alone, a Muslim province found near Malaysia, 87,000 people are displaced, sick and hungry.

Asked to comment on the Oxfam finding, Datu Hadji Alonto, convenor of the Mindanao War Victims said "It is not surprising. Many Muslim children now prefer to arm themselves and fight enemies of Allah. But it is not so much because of the call for jihad, but more so as a response and outpouring of sympathy to the perceived persecution of Muslims not only in the Philippines but all over the world, particularly in Palestine".

Mindanao War Victims is a coalition of Muslim emergency and rehabilitation non-government organizations helping provide food, temporary shelter and medicine in Mindanao.

Muslim rebel fighters have never feigned innocence over the involvement of children in their war for a separate state in the Philippines. Moro Islamic Liberation front (MILF) chief Hashim Salamat has declared during the early stages of their war against the Philippine government that "We are planting the seeds of struggle in the minds of young people so that future generations will be able to fight for freedom, if it does not come in our lifetime".

According to Rory Mungoven of the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and Human Rights Watch, a huge number of children make up the 15,000 strong MILF rebel force in Mindanao. All over Asia, some 75,000 child soldiers are fighting men's wars and worldwide in 40 countries, there are 300,000 child combatants, he added.

Jerome Pol-ang, a battle-tested Philippine Marine sergeant who saw the fall of the MILF rebel camp Abu Bakar last year attests to presence of children fighting as regular soldiers. "How could we know they are children? They have guns and uniforms like us and they fight like real men. If you ask if I have seen young dead enemies, most of those I saw were young, one was 15 like my oldest son".

Lawyer Reuben Carranza, who was a former assistant secretary of the country's national defense, says the MILF and the New Peoples Army of the communist rebels are major recruiters of children. "The MILF is recruiting young girls and boys to fight its dirty war. Others are assigned manual work in training camps like porters, cook. Many are trained to spy of government military detachments", he said.

The armed forces vice chief of staff Victor Mayo has bared that there are many children among the 15,000 strong MILF fighting force while some 1,170 children aged 12 - 16 years old are fighting with the communist rebels.

"Child soldiers are conscripted or forcibly recruited", said Mungoven. "But many volunteer to fight and die for causes and reasons they may know little or nothing about".

Alonto says the Muslim children who gladly fight in Mindanao have no other option in life. "They were born and have wallowed in poverty. The government has shown little desire to alleviate their situation so they fight because it is essential for their existence. In short, fighting and dying is a necessity for survival, for justice, for freedom and for a homeland."

Kemal Ali Ratum is a 14 year old Muslim rebel returnee. Hobbled by a 50-calibre machine gun slug that is embedded in his hip he said "I will still fight if not in this condition. For so long, we have been treated and cheated by the government. Now that we are fighting back, the government is listening".

The 1949 Articles of the Geneva Convention and the additional protocol in 1997 dubbed as the International Humanitarian Law as well as the Optional Protocol which was ratified last week by the Philippine Senate, outline protection of children. But the enforcement provisions are inadequate and offers only legal response, thus viewed by human rights experts as weak.

The difficult task of preventing recruitment of children into armed conflicts has few answers; basically because much of the problem lies with poverty which is seen as the root cause.

As long as poverty stalks lands, child soldiers will not only be around but will affect a broad spectrum of the society. In this island of Mindanao, it is not difficult to see that.

Bron : Asian Observer

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