Youth leaders with firsthand experience of conflict in the world's most troubled regions last month launched a new Global Network of Young People Formerly Affected by War at UN headquarters in New York.
The group is led by UNICEF advocate Ismael Beah, who wrote the international bestseller A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007], where he describes his two years of fighting in the Sierra Leonean army. The objective of the network is to demand accountability and to promote rehabilitation and empowerment of young people who are affected by armed conflict.
An estimated 250,000 children around the world are serving in armed conflicts as soldiers, messengers, spies, porters, cooks, for sexual services, or even as suicide bombers, advocates say.
UNICEF often conducts delicate negotiations with warlords to try to gain the release of child soldiers without putting them at risk, and the group, with sub-networks on the ground in various countries, can provide information on the needs and particularities of each individual case. Part of the network's mandate is to raise awareness and empower local communities, but also to demand accountability and contribute to the reconciliation process in countries experiencing conflict. The group will also work to provide a means of rehabilitation and orderly return to civilian life.
"When we get out of the war, our heads are filled with arms," says former Sudanese child soldier Kon Kelei. "When we are disarmed, there is no room to function like a kid."