Children in war
It’s a heartbreaking story: A mother finds on Facebook a photo of a boy holding an assault rifle and resembling her son who was kidnapped by house help when he was three years old, and who remains missing.
The photo, posted by the Maute group in Marawi City, suggested that the boy was now a child soldier of the terrorists allied with the Islamic State.
As any mother like Rowhanisa Abdul Jabar can attest, losing a child is bad enough; finding him or her in dire or morally ambiguous circumstances is worse.
In response to Jabar’s entreaties, the military has begun trying to verify if the photo is authentic and if the armed boy is indeed her son Ram-Ram.
There is no definite word yet from the intelligence community, but Capt. Jo-ann Petinglay of Joint Task Force Marawi quoted escaped Maute hostages as saying that child soldiers had been seen fighting alongside the terrorists, and were often assigned to guard the captives.
Being impressionable and physically weak, child soldiers are vulnerable to intimidation and manipulation, Petinglay said. And being mostly impoverished, they can be enticed to join terror groups with promises of money and material goods.
The crisis in Marawi has produced orphans and young homeless evacuees who, in their desperate need for food and shelter, are ripe for the picking. In fact, another mother, Fatima Lumabaw, is missing four of her children who disappeared during the pitched battle between government troops and the terrorists.
A former child soldier recounted how, as a boy, he overhead his parents talking to Cayamora and Farhana Maute, the parents of the notorious Maute brothers. He said they offered to send him to study the Quran, a privilege poor Muslim families can ill afford.
But a month into the lessons in Butig some 50 kilometers from Marawi, he was given a rifle and told to kill Christians and unbelievers. He said he was told that “dying in battle guarantees a place in heaven.”
Another former child soldier recalled being recruited by an armed group when he was 12 with the promise of military training and P15,000-P20,000 a month. The training included self-defense skills and learning Arabic.
He escaped two months later, and told the military that some 40 children, some as young as seven, were in the training camp. He said part of their initiation was beheading a target; failing in the task could mean being beheaded instead.
Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, spokesperson for the military, said children and minors trained by Maute members had been seen bearing arms in videos circulating on social media. They could be relatives or hostages of the terrorists, he said.
But most alarming is how some of the children displaced by the Marawi crisis view the IS fighters as heroes and want to be like them, Philippine Sports Commission chair William Ramirez said when the PSC recently hosted games for peace in Iligan City.
The children said members of the terror group based in the Middle East gave them food and paid their fathers, while they got nothing from the government that treated them badly.
What ways can be used to counter the enticements offered by terror groups, or at least to salve the sense of despair that drives these children into the clutches of the enemy?
Ramirez suggested games, play, and sports competitions that can allow children to appreciate the diversity of Philippine culture and religion. “There is a saying that when children play, humanity celebrates,” he said.
The Philippines being a signatory to the United Nations’ Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, the government can provide physical and psychological recovery services and assistance in the social reintegration of child soldiers.
In past administrations, civil organizations organized peace caravans that opened up “zones of peace” in which children could receive medical treatment, go to school, and enjoy activities that kids do in normal circumstances. Can such initiatives be revived, this time by local governments working with NGOs?
Of course, there is no ignoring the most essential solution: for the government to fulfill its mandate to deliver basic services to all Filipinos, young and old, to show that it can offer something more than the blandishments of terror groups.
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