Mia Farrow fights for boy soldiers of Darfur
|The Daily Telegraph, 19 Juin 2006|
The 14-year-old boy wilted in the searing heat, burdened by his rifle and sweating profusely as he chanted "Revolution, revolution" in a hoarse, high-pitched voice.
A delegation from the United Nations children's agency, Unicef, sat in the shade as 24 rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) paraded before them, pounding the desert sand of war-ravaged Darfur.
The gathering looked more like a riotous school assembly than a display of military prowess. Among the fighters, the SLA had seen fit to include the boy of 14, two 15-year-olds and at least six others in their mid or early teens.
Why the rebels chose to stage such a welcoming ceremony before a delegation whose prime role is safeguarding the rights of children is unfathomable. It drove home one of the brutal realities of a conflict that has forced at least two million people from their homes and killed up to 300,000 from violence, starvation and disease.
Child soldiers have been thrown into battle by all sides, including government forces.
Some of the SLA's youthful fighters in the Galap area, which is under rebel control, were only slightly taller than their rifles. They wear lucky charms around their necks and arms: tiny leather pouches holding Koranic verse. These are proof against enemy bullets, they say.
Every party in this war denies arming children. Rebel commanders do so even when boys are carrying guns a few yards away.
"All these children are above the age of 18," Cdr Mukhtar Shumu Idriss said as a collection of teenage fighters gathered nearby.
"I am not arming children with guns if they are under the age of 18. I know there is an international convention against this. I want peace for the children and women of Darfur."
After several youthful fighters had disclosed their ages, another commander moved among them. "Tell him you are 25 years old," he said to small boys, sweating under the weight of their guns.
Unicef has rehabilitated schools across Darfur, training teachers, handing out exercise books and paying examination fees for refugee children. But reuniting child soldiers with their families is also part of its role.
Last month the SLA faction controlling Galap signed the Darfur peace agreement with Sudan's regime at a meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Unlike other groups in the divided rebel movement, it is theoretically committed to ending the war.
But Unicef has to tread carefully. If it offends the SLA, the rebels may prevent the delivery of aid in areas they control. Unicef asked that no photographs of the faces of child soldiers be published.
When the senior rebel commander, Yahya Hassan al-Nil, was questioned about the child soldiers, he said that any children with the SLA were being "protected" because their parents had been killed.
"We hope that if the peace holds they can go home," he said.
Among those who witnessed the assembly of child fighters was Mia Farrow, the actress, who is visiting Darfur as an ambassador for Unicef.
"We were hearing that there were no child soldiers but it was very clear that there were," said Miss Farrow, 61. "We saw them carrying guns right there with the adults."
Miss Farrow takes a passionate interest in Darfur and was making her second visit, accompanied by her 16-year-old son, Ronan.
The actress said that the deployment of UN peacekeepers with a robust mandate allowing the use of force to protect civilians was "the only hope".
She will take that message to decision-makers in America and to Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, whom she hopes to see this week.
"The powerful people I am going to meet know full well what is happening here and that is part of the tragedy," she said.
"There are always reasons for caution, for not wanting to get involved. I do understand these reasons; I just don't agree with them."