Britain’s disregard for black bodies is centuries old, from John Hawkins’ maiden voyage to the Guinea Coast in 1562 and subsequent enslavement of 500 Africans1,which began British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, to Sarah Reed’s brutalisation by a Metropolitan Police constable in 2012 and her death while in the care of staff at HMP Holloway in January 2016. Last month’s revelation that a British private military contractor (PMC) employed demobilised child soldiers from Sierra Leone as part of its mercenary force in Iraq becomes another point of reference on this timeline.
Invading countries is an expensive business. Ask George W. Bush. Ask Tony Blair. Their crusade to ‘liberate’ Iraqi oil unleashed hellacious consequences on the Iraqi people and across the Middle East. In order to suffocate resistance and keep black gold flowing freely on the global market, occupation was necessary. An obliterated state created the perfect business climate for PMCs. The occupation would be privatised.
By 2007, Iraq was swarming with PMCs. An estimated 100,000 personnel were working directly for the United States Department of Defence. These mercenaries operated in a legal vacuum outside the jurisdiction of Iraqi law – a terrifying lack of accountability that created a space for abuses. In 2007, Blackwater Security Consulting employees shot and murdered 17 civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad. Australian contractors working for Unity Resources Group fired between 20 and 40 shots at a vehicle carrying two Armenian women, Genevia Antranick and Mary Awanis, killing them. British contractor Aegis Defence Services was linked to a series of trophy videos documenting mercenaries firing at civilian vehicles.
Despite their rampant brutality, or perhaps because of it, employing white westerners to facilitate the occupation was not cheap. Former PMC Stephen Friday told the Guardian that he could earn up to £10,000 a month.2 To avoid such dents in their profits, Aegis Defence Services – chaired by Sir Nicholas Soames, Tory MP and grandson of the greatest of Britons, Winston Churchill – looked toward diversifying their workforce. James Ellery, former Aegis director and retired British Army brigadier, said that when recruiting, ‘you go from the Midlands of England to Nepalese etc, Asians, and then at some point you say, “I’m afraid all we can afford now is Africans”.’3 Yes, straight out of the colonialist’s handbook, justified and sustained by a series of racist tropes: the employment of Africans as cheap labour.
James Ellery was well acquainted with the people of Sierra Leone, having served as chief of staff to the UN mission responsible for the demobilisation of thousands of child soldiers in the aftermath of an 11-year civil war. One imagines Ellery, described in the Telegraph as ‘the former ADC to Lord Mountbatten and Commanding Officer of the Life Guards, who believes that the British Empire was a Good Thing’,5 as a truly predatory peacekeeper. This ‘very British gentleman’6 quite conceivably recognised the opportunity for future personal enrichment while conducting humanitarian work for the United Nations. What is more British than achieving financial betterment through the exploitation of Africans? What does the fact that the former chief of staff of a UN mission in an African nation procured the services of former child soldiers from that nation, as part of a mercenary force, say about the credibility of UN missions in Africa? We know that UN peacekeepers have sexually abused at least 98 girls in the Central African Republic, and have been able to do so with impunity.7 Is the presence of UN peacekeeping forces in Africa in fact a multilayered malignancy? Does this further reflect society’s disregard for black bodies?
Danish journalist Mads Ellesoe has made Aegis’ recruitment of former child soldiers the subject of a documentary, The Child Soldier’s New Job. He told Middle East Eye that he had spoken to demobilised child soldiers who had committed atrocities in their homelands. He said, ‘They told me they were living in poverty. No one wanted to take up arms again but they needed jobs, so they went to Iraq.’8 Former child soldier Gibrilla Kuyateh told Ellesoe, ‘Every time I hold a weapon, it keeps reminding me about the past. It brings back many memories.’9
An estimated 10,000 children were active during Sierra Leone’s civil war, but let us be clear; the shameful proliferation of child soldiers is not simply an African issue. Making this false distinction reinforces the same racism that justifies the continued exploitation of African men and women as cheap labour. The proliferation of child soldiers is a global issue, from Colombia, to East Timor, to Iraq and Syria. There are approximately 250,000 child soldiers active in the world today, exploited by both state and non-state actors. Around 40% of child soldiers are girls, sexually abused again and again but often euphemistically labelled ‘wives’ of male combatants.10
While forcible, violent recruitment does take place, a significant proportion of child soldiers are considered to have volunteered. However, the idea that a child’s choice to join an armed group is ‘voluntary’ must be scrutinised. Does a child fully appreciate the potential consequences of their decision and the enormity of what they are undertaking? If we accept that children are rational actors, assessing their options and then making the rational choice to join an armed group to meet their most basic survival needs, we must also accept that the options confronting children in this context are cruelly limited. If we want to develop an honest understanding of why this is the case, we must analyse our own bloodstained colonial histories. A young person in my borough of London, living below the poverty line, may make the choice to sell cocaine to middle-class adults in the city’s gentrified enclaves to support themselves and their families. Is this choice truly voluntary, or are they pushed toward it by hostile material conditions? And indeed Yasmin Begum described in her article, Why is child military recruitment still practiced in the UK? that ‘In England, children can sign up for military training at the age of 15 years and 7 months for commencement of their training at age 16.’
I have dedicated my working life to supporting young trauma survivors in schools. Childhood trauma shatters a child’s sense of security and can have a severe impact on adult life, particularly if the trauma remains unresolved. Furthermore, childhood trauma can make us more vulnerable to further traumatisation. Survivors’ traumatic memories can be triggered by particular experiences: the sound of a door closing, the sight of a butter knife in the kitchen, a congratulatory pat on the back from a teacher, the cold weight of a machine gun in one’s hands. We can access a plethora of testimony from demobilised child soldiers that confirms the unfathomable trauma these girls and boys have endured.
Below are excerpts from the Human Rights Watch report in 2003 on child combatants in Colombia.
Fabio was forced to kill a friend during a paramilitary training course.
‘It was a test. They passed me a machete to cut him up while he was alive … The commander was watching … I cut his throat, feet and arms. I felt very sad and I cried.’11
Oscar was ordered to kill a captive in front of other recruits.
‘I had to do it publicly, in front of the whole company, fifty people. I had to shoot him in the head, I was trembling. Afterwards, I couldn’t eat. I’d see the person’s blood.’12
Similar findings emerged when Vivo, an international NGO, carried out therapeutic work in Northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The following disclosures were made by interviewees during diagnostic sessions.
O.B was 14 when he was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda. He described a murder he was ordered to commit.
‘The commander gave me the hapanga and told me to kill the man … Rebels don’t kill people twice, they do it one stroke. So I knew it had to be one stroke … I cut hard through the bones in the back. The head did not come off completely, but the man was sinking forward. I was trembling.’13
K.K.G was 13 when he joined Mai-Mai rebels in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. He witnessed fellow recruits being murdered for attempting to escape.
‘I have seen 5 people being killed for severe disobedience … They were crucified in the forest … Sometimes the commander then ordered for people to be burnt with hot plastic again and again until they had real holes in their bodies.’14
Demobilised child soldiers carry with them the burden of both physical and psychological trauma, typically witnessing, surviving and inflicting extreme suffering. This has a profound effect on their development and makes reintegration into society a complex, delicate task. To aid in the reconciliation process, the government of Sierra Leone initiated sensitisation campaigns for former child soldiers with ‘the explicit message that their involvement in the country’s atrocities was not their fault’.15 Reunification with family within a traditional community environment has proven to be particularly effective, safeguarding against exclusion and signalling a return to normalcy. Psychosocial support, understanding the relationship between the psychological and social effects of conflict, is fundamental. Providing opportunities for education and income generation further eases the transition from military to civilian life.
That a demobilised child soldier in Sierra Leone, perhaps fully reintegrated back into their community or in the process of doing so, perhaps marginalised and vulnerable, can be employed and wildly underpaid by a British defence contractor to facilitate the occupation of a sovereign state in the Middle East highlights the depravity of a privatised occupation. To re-traumatise these young people in the name of maximising profits is sickening, and demonstrates Britain’s continued failure to see the humanity of black bodies.
1 The National Archives: Adventurers and Slavers.
2 The Guardian: The return of the dogs of war: what’s it like to be a soldier for hire?
3 The Guardian: UK firm ’employed former child soldiers’ as mercenaries in Iraq
5 The Telegraph: The very British gentleman helping to put southern Sudan back on its feet
7 #PredatoryPeacekeepers Petition: We will not stand by when UN soldiers abuse rape and murder
8 UK firm hired African former child soldiers to fight in Iraq
10 Child soldiers. Some words don’t belong together
11 Human Rights Watch: “You’ll Learn Not to Cry”: Child Soldiers in Colombia
13 Elisabeth Schauer and Thomas Elbert, Chapter 14: The Psychological Impact of Child Soldiering, in Trauma Rehabilitation after War and Conflict, ed. E. Martz. Springer, 2010. Hosted at the United States Institute of Peace official site.
15 Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health: Life after death: Helping former child soldiers become whole again
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Robert Kazandjian is an educator and writer. He works with vulnerable children in North London. His writing seeks to challenge inequality, in all its guises. He has previously written for Ceasefire Magazine on racism in Israel, gender politics and hip hop music, and the necessity of Armenian Genocide recognition. He blogs poetry at makemymark.tumblr.com. He cites Douglas Dunn, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin and Nas as major influences. He tweets from @RKazandjian
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