“Childhood” is a meaningless term to the children born in the Lebanese areas suffering frequent security crises. They appear to be children, but their minds carry the ideas of the parties that they have belonged to for years. They assert their beliefs and are not ashamed to carry arms in front of officials in support of this or that political organization. There is no one to remind them that they are still children, many under the age of 10.
Previous disturbing security events in Lebanon leave no doubt that child soldiers exist there, especially after they were seen in a number of Lebanese areas armed with sophisticated weapons and wearing the uniforms of several different organizations.
Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs and President of the Higher Council for Childhood Wael Abu Faour confirmed this, saying that “in the midst of the security problems unfolding in northern Lebanon, children’s rights have been clearly and blatantly violated. Child soldiers have appeared on TV channels.” But this crisis is not limited to the city of Tripoli. In certain neighborhoods of Beirut, children are being trained to take arms and fight in street wars. Their training and participation has been kept a secret, but the security crises soon forced them into the public spotlight.
Parties, political movements and organizations have rejected the charge that they are training child soldiers below the age of 18. However, it is undeniable that children are actively present on the streets and that they are carrying weapons during the most dangerous times. They are risking their lives, largely unaware of the reality of the crisis.
Violence for the Sake of Violence
Firas, age 10, gathers other children around him to lecture them about the political situation in the country and the region, saying, “If we don’t protect ourselves, who will protect us?” Firas does not avoid questions addressed to him. He answers with confidence that he was born to be the protector of the area in which he lives, saying “I will get rid of anyone who harms it.” When asked if he has his own weapon, Firas explains that he often takes part in burning tires or erecting barricades to close off certain streets, but that carrying a weapon is restricted to the crucial moments when he would ask his young neighbors to provide him with a hand grenade or an available rifle. He asserts that he has many friends who engage in riots or armed activities. What unites them is the fact that they belong to the same area. He admits that he is strongly influenced by his older brother, who “would sacrifice his life for the cause,” as he put it, no matter how obscure tha cause it or how it changes according to circumstances.
Civil organizations and NGOs have directed their attention toward areas witnessing ongoing security crises, but activist testimonies in these organizations have yet to make a breakthrough. Activist Zeinab Khadr, who works with a local organization, confirms that there are “chronic ‘childhood cases' in many parts of Lebanon because the culture of war and conflict is deeply rooted.” This enourages children to engage in violent activities, even though it is very likely that they will get hurt.
In collaboration with many other young people, Khadr tries to organize summer camps for children to familiarize them with a different life style. However, “once security incidents take place, they go back to burning tires and carrying machine guns that are not even suitable for men.” According to activist Ahmad Badawi, these children are tempting a dangerous fate. “The ‘war’ generation has been reborn with an even more violent spirit and no rightful cause,” he says, adding that “this generation is engaging in violence for the sake of violence.” The solution, according to Badawi, will come when “the parties, movements and organizations abandon the idea of child soldiers, especially if they have people committed to a certain party in these children’s families.”
While civil organizations do all they can to restore the meaning of childhood to these children who are victims of fighting and conflict, schools are losing their students. According to Sarah Farah, a middle-school teacher at a state school, “armed conflicts affect the students’ learning abilities, and many never return to the classroom, even after the situation has calmed and security and stability return to normal.”
Farah says that it is usually pointless to contact the parents, who respond to the administration with “it is not a time for education,” or “my son should learn how to be a man in such circumstances.” Farah admits that a number of her students have assumed the role of protectors of their neighborhoods despite their young age, and that some organizations embrace them outside the educational framework that is necessary for their development.
All of these facts indicate that Lebanon has not yet made any effort to remove itself from the blacklist of countries where the child-soldier phenomenon is spreading. The biggest problem is that these children will grow up to become young men in a few years, but the principles that they learned at a young age will remain the same.