Friday, Dec. 10, is Human Rights Day in which millions of people around the world honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, though, there are still millions around the world who do not and cannot enjoy human rights.
On this day, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, former child soldier Emmanuel Jal and recording artist Shaun Boothe gathered at the University of Toronto’s MacMillan Theatre to promote the newest initiative to eliminate the exploitation of child soldiers all around the world. This movement is called Zero Force
and officially started on Human Rights Day.
What is Zero Force?
Zero Force is a campaign led by Dallaire, who is considered a hero by some for his outstanding peacekeeping work in various parts of Africa, which was then published into a book by Dallaire titled “Shake Hands With Devil” that was later produced into a motion picture. The recipient of the Governor General’s Literary Award announced that his goal for the rest of his life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers.
Although there are no official statistics, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children between the ages of 8 and 17 are recruited to become soldiers in either government security forces or armed rebel groups.
“Our initial goal is to enlist 25,000 Canadians to join Zero Force, representing one-tenth of the number of child soldiers who exist in the world today,” said L. Gen. Dallaire. “We need to reach this number by Feb. 12, 2011, the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, when I will represent Zero Force at the United Nations and show the world Canadians are looking beyond their own borders by leading the charge to stop the use of child soldiers.”
According to many of the stories presented during Thursday and Friday’s events, child soldiers witness some of the most disturbing experiences that affect them physically, mentally and emotionally.
Children are abducted and forced into these armed groups by means of brainwashing, confinement, slavery, sleep deprivation, starvation, torture, threats and intoxication through drugs and alcohol.
Many children are not forced into these groups, however. As Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier who started shooting an AK-47 at the age of 8, told Digital Journal
that when you’re poor, hungry and surrounded by violence on a daily basis, you have no choice but to join these groups and no one pressures you into doing it.
Zero Force’s primary principle is: “One child soldier is too many.”
Jal was one of the featured speakers at Friday’s event. The Sudanese international hip-hop sensation provided the audience anecdotes of what he saw, while also delivering three hip-hop performances and spoken word.
The spokesperson for the Make Poverty History campaign, who has also performed in front of such men as Nelson Mandela, fought in both Sudan and Ethiopia as a child soldier. The 2005 winner of the American Gospel Music Award for best international artist recalled his days as a child soldier:
“There was nothing that encouraged us to get recruited,” said Jal, speaking in the backstage area of the Zero Force event. “Most of us that came saw our homes torn down, some of us witnessed our parents killed; there was nothing much to get us angry to join.”
The author of “Warchild” explained that the children were taken to school in Ethiopia and then from thereon they were provided the chance to train as soldiers for the armed factions: “When we were given the chance to own a gun, it was something that we had been waiting for.”
He noted that you were told you can actually play a part in the havoc that overwhelms a village where “your mother gets killed, your home burned down and your sister raped.”
There would be days where the child soldiers would not eat or drink anything for a long period of time. They would try to get their hands on anything, including snakes, rats, snails, hyenas and birds. If it rained overnight, the young boys and girls – young ladies were also recruited as child soldiers and served as sex slaves to the warlords – would put their hands through the grass and lick the water off their hands.
One story that shocked the crowd the most was when he had to make the choice as to whether he should eat his friend and “suffer the moral consequences” or continue to starve and not have the ethical anguish in the future.
Luckily, says Jal, his friend had shot a crow but, unfortunately, the young man died and he was left to eat the crow by himself.
When asked about the Western governments funding Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which uses hundreds of children as young as nine, Jal says you can’t blame governments but rather the corporations because they “have an interest in the place.”
“It’s the responsibility of the state that receives this large funding from these corporations that want to do business with them. They choose to pocket the money and not have any care for building schools or build a system to make everybody equal. That’s why the system is a mess.”
On Feb. 12, Zero Force will hold an event in New York City for the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers. The details of the event have not been revealed.
Speakers at Toronto’s event urged the students to post messages on their Facebook accounts condemning the utilization of child soldiers and also publishing tweets stating: “Zero Force is off the hook.” Students were further urged to text "enlist" to "101010."
“They’re screaming every day, in the hundreds of thousands, to be able to be treated as humanly as children and young people as you,” stated Dallaire. “We need you to use every power that you have, which is absolutely extraordinary compared to what we used to have. You have the power of communication. You can communicate with the whole world. You can Skype them. Get together for a few dollars and send them a laptop. You can communicate with them.”