The Voices of War

5. Dr. Mike Wessells - On Child Soldiers

VOW 5 | Child Soldiers


My guest is Dr. Mike Wessells, Professor at Columbia University in the Program on Forced Migration and Health. Over the decades, Mike has conducted extensive research on the holistic impacts of war and political violence on children, and he is the author of the book ‘Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection.’ Currently, Mike is the lead researcher on inter-agency and multi-country action research on strengthening community-based child protection mechanisms. He also regularly advises UN agencies, governments, and donors on child protection issues and psychosocial support, including in communities and schools.


Some of the topics we covered during our conversation are:

  • Ongoing confusion about the definition of Child Soldiers
  • Some of the push and pull factors that encourage child soldiering
  • How children deal with trauma
  • Misunderstanding of Western interventions
  • Importance of culturally appropriate interventions
  • Agency of Children in War
  • Healing and overcoming trauma
  • Self-care needs of humanitarian workers

This was a very confronting conversation, and I remain deeply grateful to Mike for sharing his invaluable lessons on this important topic. As you will hear, not only is Mike an eminent expert on the subject, but he is also deeply compassionate and a true gentleman.


You can find out more about Mike’s work and his publications on:


And you can find out about his book, ‘Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection’ here:

Dr. Mike Wessells – On Child Soldiers

My guest is Dr. Mike Wessells, who is a professor at Columbia University in the program on forced migration and health. He’s a long-time psychosocial and child protection practitioner and a former Co-Chair of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s task force on mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings. For those not aware, this is the body mandated by the United Nations to agree on priorities and responses to humanitarian crises across the globe. He was also a Co-Focal Point and Principal Advisor on mental health and psychosocial support for the revision of the Sphere Humanitarian Standards.

For our readers who may not have read of the Sphere Standards, It’s a global standard that effectively sets the benchmark for humanitarian intervention. Over the decades, Mike has conducted extensive research on the holistic impacts of war and political violence on children and is the author of the book Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection, which I read and is the subject of this episode.

Mike is the lead researcher on interagency multi-country action research on strengthening community-based child protection mechanisms by enabling effective linkages with national child protection systems. He also regularly advises UN agencies, governments, and donors on issues of child protection and psychosocial support, including in communities and schools. Throughout Africa and Asia, he helps to develop community-based, culturally grounded programs that assist people affected by armed conflict and natural disasters. Mike, it is a real pleasure to meet you. Thank you for joining me.

It’s a real pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me on.

There are many questions to ask about the topic of Child Soldiers. It is such a broad subject, but perhaps to get us started or before we delve into those maybe murky waters, I can start by asking what originally inspired you are now a decades-long commitment to the well-being of children in war.

It was not exactly a linear route. I would trace part of it to the fact that I was very much part of the protest against the Vietnam War here. I was very attentive to the impact of that horrible war on children. It moved me deeply. When my son was born in 1982, I remember questioning myself about why it was that I was an academic by day, doing activism and trying to build a better world, basically in the off hours. It set me thinking.

A few years later, I was working in a refugee camp for Palestinians in Baqa’a, Jordan. I had the opportunity to talk at length with a lot of adolescents. They did a lot of educating, even encouraging and pressuring me to go back and try to work to get a more equitable policy that would support Palestinian rights from the US Government.

These things set me thinking then I would say the thing that turned my life around and made me want to focus on supporting more effective children was an NGO that was near my home. I live in Central Virginia in the US. It was called Christian Children’s Fund, now called Child Fund. During the Angolan War, they were running a very large psychosocial support program for children. When I went to Angola, I found a level of suffering intermixed at the same time with incredible resilience and the opportunity to learn a company and walk alongside and support the Angola team that was working to support the war-affected children. They were taking a cultural approach that intermixed Western approaches with Angola’s approaches. I realised how much of a multinational intercultural perspective was needed.

I learned in a small way that I could support local teams doing phenomenal work without myself trying to be the “expert.” That lit my fire and launched me on a journey of trying to learn in different countries in different contexts how children are affected by armed conflict and, in particular, how former child soldiers can continue their journey back into civilian lives. The more I’ve engaged in that work, the more I’ve been inspired by young people themselves. Here I am, continuing that work and hopefully bringing forward some of their voices and experiences.

That’s truly inspiring work. May I ask for a point of clarification for some of our readers who may not be familiar with the terminology? What do we mean by psychosocial support or requirements of children?

It refers to not just individual well-being but an individual’s well-being in relation to other people. The fundamental idea is that most people in the world do not define themselves as isolated individuals but as members of a family, an extended family, and a community. To be well is to have positive relationships, be able to find meaning within those relationships, have a positive sense about your culturally constructed identity, and have a role that enables you to help people who are important to you.

This well-being has cognitive that is thought components of cognition, but it relates hugely to people’s emotional and social well-being and also to their spiritual well-being. I would underline the latter because I think spiritual well-being is a blind spot for many Western psychologists who tend not to believe in a spirit world order regarded as more in the province of religion than in the province of psychology.

What we find in many countries is that spiritual well-being is right at the heart of cultural identity and it makes meaning amidst difficult circumstances. It is a very holistic approach that is required to enable psychosocial well-being. It contrasts very sharply with the narrow clinical approach that some humanitarian workers take when, for example, they’re concerned primarily, or in some cases, only with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or some clinical malty.

You bring up a very valid point there, the impact of culture on our understanding of what’s important in different cultural contexts. The only other key definition I want to touch on that perhaps opens up the avenue into the topic is also that there appears to be confusion on what we even mean by child soldiers. You opened the book wrestling with this challenge. Can you talk about that a little bit?

There has been a lot of confusion for multiple reasons and ways. To begin with, part of the confusion arises over the definition of a child. In the West and under international law, we define a child in terms of temporality. That’s his age. A chronological definition is that a child is a human being under the age of eighteen years. In many societies, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa and many parts of Asia, a young person who has been through a rite of cultural passage or who does the work of adult women or adult men, or who is sexually active, is viewed therefore as an adult. Typically, that might occur at age fifteen or even younger.

The definition of a child is culturally constructed, and not all cultures adhere to the Western definition, which is enshrined in human rights. The complicated matters further, there was a definition of child soldier for many years that referred basically to ex-combatants, a person under eighteen years of age who had been a member of an armed force or an armed group who carried a weapon and had been involved in hostilities.

VOW 5 | Child Soldiers
Child Soldiers: The definition of a child is culturally constructed, and not all cultures adhere to the Western definition, which enshrines human rights.


The problem with that definition is that we knew there were lots of other children who were with armed groups who did not perform fighting functions or at least did not directly take part in hostilities. They might have been women, for example. Young women often play the role of wives because they’re often taken by force and captors. Sex slaves might be a more appropriate description of it, but they might also be cooks or quarters, but they may not be involved in fighting.

The complicated, further, there are lots of young people who perform roles such as hearing weapons, spies, and being bodyguards. They are indirectly involved in hostilities, but they’re not firing the weapons. Now under the main international guidelines, the Paris Principles, all of these people whom I’ve described are described as child soldiers. If you’re working or associated with, in any capacity, an armed group or an armed force, then by definition, you are a Child Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, which is the technical term for a child soldier or CAAFAG. I tend to prefer to speak of child soldiers, but it is important to define what one means.

Thank you for clarifying that point because even within myself, I’ve recognised that I’ve fallen for that trap, while I haven’t studied the phenomenon of child soldiers. I’ve done some study of war in conflict. I was somewhat ashamed that I hadn’t delved into this rather important topic in greater detail. It seems to me, or at least that’s what came through the book, that it was also the changing nature of war as well as the change in the weapon system available that greatly contributed to the recruitment of children. You talk in the book about how for example, the AK-47 or the Kalashnikov opened up a new door for the utility of children of war. Is that true?

It’s very true. Sub-Saharan Africa is quite shocking. You find that, even in remote villages, there are AK-47s and other automatic weapons available that can be operated by a 10-year-old and a normal size, 10 or 11-year-old, with a modicum of training and pressure or even terrorism can be taught to be an efficient fighting force. The other thing is that the day’s armed conflict is definitely not fought on a well-defined battlefield.

As we’ve seen in the war in former Yugoslavia, which you’re so familiar with, the wars in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the list goes on and on. These are wars that are fought around communities, where one of the main strategies of arm groups is to terrorise civilians and subject them to direct artillery bombing, landmines, and unexploded ordinances. It’s to basically dominate them and try to control them through terror.

What this means is that children are subjected to attack on a very large scale, in large numbers, significant numbers, and witness sometimes very brutal death through mutilation and torture of their parents and loved ones. Large numbers of child soldiers, certainly not all, are taken at gunpoint. Oftentimes, they are handed a gun and told to kill a member of their own family or their village. That’s a horrific tactic that’s designed to break the bonds between the child and the community and to make it impossible for the child to escape. In short, war comes from communities. It’s not thought somewhere else. The community is weaponised. Many communities cannot be protected or are not protected by the states of which they’re a part. They themselves become take up arms.

Many child soldiers are held at gunpoint and told to kill a member of their own family or a member of their village. That's a horrific tactic designed to break the bonds between the child and the community and make it impossible for the child to escape. Click To Tweet

In this way, a lot of children get involved in armed conflict because they’re fighting alongside of their fathers, cousins, and brothers. They may be fighting for the liberation of what they see as the liberation of their families from a cause and otherwise that they do not relate to. Under those circumstances, children take up arms through their own decision, they’re not forced into it. There’s a lot of debate about whether the decisions are voluntary. I’ve talked with children who tried to convince me that their actions were completely voluntary.

I respect that, yet I found myself wondering, living under these circumstances, for example, if you’re a ten-year-old child in Afghanistan, and you live in a place where you don’t want to be under Taliban control. Your father, uncle, brother, and whole family have militarised against the Taliban and taken up the arm. It’s easy to get drawn into that. It’s what your family does. You want to help protect your family, village, the honour of your people, identity, and religion.

Yet, those decisions are bounded by such severe deprivation and hardship that it becomes painfully difficult to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary decisions. It’s an area of great complexity that we need to keep our eye on and not fall into very easy decisions about whether something is voluntary or involuntary. The more I do this work, the more I see complexity other than any simplicity.

That echoes across war and all of the conflicts as well. Things are very rarely as they seem and certainly not as black and white as they are often portrayed or presented in the media or even in some of the other broader social narratives that we embrace. The ones that stuck out with me in your book were the lack of agency we tend to give children in war or child soldiers. It’s because we have a tendency to feel pity, perhaps rightly serve because these are minors who are having to experience or see some traumatic sites but also partake and do some horrendous acts.

As you rightly point out, there are some positive pull factors that provide an avenue out of poverty for some of these children. It’s the environment that they live in that becomes almost a cause for them joining an armed group because the armed group is seen rightly or wrongly as a way out. Do you agree with that?

VOW 5 | Child Soldiers
Child Soldiers: It’s the environment that they live in that becomes almost a cause for them joining an armed group.


I do broadly. You’re right. Every armed conflict is a unique context. It’s very difficult to generalise from one child soldier in one context to the next. It is the case that in many situations, children decide to make their own decision to join. I met a boy in Angola who joined an armed group at six years old. I asked him why. He said, “It was the only way I could get food. I was going to die of starvation.” I’ve talked with other children who needed access to particular health supplies, and the only way they could get it was through an armed group. I’ve talked with children in Columbia, members of the so-called FARC, and resistance against the government forces.

They said that they joined because their families treated them very badly. One child had an alcoholic father who beat his mother and a mother who couldn’t stand up to him. He began associating with some young people who were members of FARC. They became like a family to him. That became a big pull factor. Other children find that they can earn money. For families that are starving, this is a very big deal. They’re not just doing it to buy things for themselves. They’re talking about food and survival for their families. In some countries, I’ve met children who have always been invisible. They’ve always been treated like they’re nobody. They’re to be seen but not heard.

They are infantilised by adults and not respected as having any agency. Sometimes they join because when they get the uniform on, they are seen immediately as somebody. They carry the weapon with power. They oftentimes take great pride in driving in military convoys and learning to operate weaponry. Complex systems give them a sense of power and accomplishment.

In groups such as the Islamic State, which has recruited large numbers of young people through madrassa, a not religious grounds for recruitment, but politicised forms of religion. Oftentimes, the teaching is that if you sacrifice yourself for Allah, you will first of all become a martyr for your cause but you’ll ascend to heaven and have a large number of virgins who are at your service.

You’ll be a hero for your people for all time. These things are a glorification of child soldiering and the romance associated with it. It holds a tremendous lure for people who have nobody’s seen. They felt that they were nobodies and they live in very difficult circumstances. They feel drawn to a cause that’s beyond themselves. If you feel that you are part of an oppressed people, as we’ve seen in countries such as Palestine or in areas such as Muslim areas of Sri Lanka that have fought against the Sri Lankan Government. They believe that they were fighting a war of liberation to achieve their cultural identity and their freedom and to liberate themselves from the yoke of tyranny that had been wrapped around their neck.

Young people oftentimes joined and even became so-called terrorists and suicide bombers precisely because they wanted to give their lives to a higher cause. Adults don’t like to recognise this, but young people often say that they find meaning and purpose in violence. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the freedom and liberation of their people. We have had way too simplistic a view of young people and their cognitive abilities and desires. It gives them a sense of meaning and purpose.

Young people joined and became terrorists and suicide bombers precisely because they wanted to give their lives for a higher cause. Adults don't like to recognize that young people find meaning and purpose in violence. Click To Tweet

Above all, as you said eloquently, we have infantilised them. We have not recognised their agency, even though their cognitive and other capacities are continuously evolving. Even ten-year-olds have quite impressive agency, then you get a teenager who’s maybe 15 or 16, and they’re quite sophisticated cognitively. They can think through complex strategies and lead groups into combat.

One thing that is different is that teenagers tend to have a limited view of their own mortality. Their brains are structured in such a way that they’re a bit more impulsive. They have a heightened willingness to take risks that most adults are unwilling to take to make frontal assaults, for example. This makes them exploitable by adult commanders who recognise this and who then throw them into situations that are horrific and unethical even by military standards. Frontal assaults on heavily fortified positions where one can only expect that the death rate is going to be 95% to 99%. These are children who are being sent to their deaths to do jobs that the adults themselves are unwilling to do. These are some of the things that have kept me up at night with regard to this very difficult topic.

This is not a small problem. This is quite at scale.

First of all, the honest answer to this is we don’t have accurate data. The reason why we don’t have a good headcount of the number of children in armed forces and armed groups is that the majority of recruiters want to keep their dastardly deeds private and hidden from view because otherwise they might be held accountable, or life might be made difficult for them.

For example, if you look at Joseph Kony from the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army, who himself is even sired. At one point, he had a breeder camp going in South Sudan. He doesn’t want people to know the exact numbers of those children, particularly given some of the cases that are now being heard by the International Criminal Court. There are a lot of recruiters of children who don’t want to be convicted of war crimes.

They again try to hide their other recruitment of children. When I wrote that book, one of the figures that was frequently used was 300,000 children. I backed off that a little bit to 250,000, but the fact is, as I mentioned in the book, that we don’t have exact figures. The same is true now, but it is done. The practice is used on a scale. I’m happy to say that international awareness and efforts such as your good show are helping. I think it’s making even more military commanders active in trying to convince people who are in control of non-state forces to try to avoid recruiting children.

It’s safe to say that there are many tens of thousands. At any point in time, we don’t know the exact number, but if you look around the world from Syria to Sedan to DRRC, there are a number of other conflicts in the Central African Republic, things that are perhaps more invisible. They don’t get the media attention that others do. There are significant numbers of young people. This damages lives. It has very long-term effects. It damages families, communities, and societies.

One of the worst things that can happen to a society is to rob young people of having a childhood where they can learn positive values, good social relationships, normal behaviour, can get an education, and get hope for the future. These are the things that enable young people to grow up and to be good contributing members of society and not people who are going to get involved in crime or other armed conflicts, who are going to have trouble fitting in, and who are going to put a heavy burden on society and themselves carry a very heavy burden of suffering.

One of the worst things that can happen to a society is to rob young people of having a childhood where they can learn positive values, good social relationships, normal behavior, can get an education, and get hope for the future. Click To Tweet

This is why many of us tried to prevent child soldiering to begin with. When prevention fails, we work very hard to achieve timely inappropriate release from the armed forces and armed groups to enable the young people to reintegrate and integrate into civilian life, redefine their identity, find a place that’s meaningful, and take off that military identity mantle. Hopefully, come to terms with and find a way to live with all the things that they’ve experienced and the things that they may have done if they had been perpetrators.

That’s the idea of losing your childhood to some of these horrors. You described some of these horrors in quite some detail in your book through a lot of quotations from the young boys and girls that you interviewed. I was speaking about some of those quotes with my partner, Esen, who was a volunteer in the Buduburam camp in Ghana some years back, where she worked with child soldiers, as well as victims of gender-based violence. This was after studying psychology to help them deal with some of their trauma.

One of the greatest challenges she brought up that she faced was this very point that you talked about. She’s dealing with the trauma, not merely the physical trauma, but the spiritual as well as the idea of shame or what they had done, be that as combatants, supporters, or sex slaves. The fact that they were part of this war, more often than not against their own will, filled them with an incredible sense of shame. This is certainly something that resonates throughout the pages of your book. Can you maybe talk about that a little bit?

Particularly girls are drawn into the activity of inside armed forces and armed groups nearly as often as boys, in some cases, even more, because they may be targeted directly. They oftentimes bear fundamentally greater shame, dishonour, and stigma. A Western psychologist who’s been a former child soldier and who was raped, became pregnant and had a child looks at their training and leads them to think of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a very serious psychological condition that definitely requires treatment. I might mention that it’s very hard for many girls who’ve been involved in the armed forces and armed groups to get appropriate treatment because there aren’t many psychologists or psychiatrists available in the countries where they work, or they may have no money.

If you ask young people who’ve been in that position, what is their biggest problem in living? They’ll often say it’s stigma. They’ll say things like, “I can’t eat off the same plate as other people.” In Sierra Leone, that’s how the girls put it right next door to Ghana. The idea is that you’re contaminated. You’ve been around dead people. You may even have killed people. The belief is that you carry bad spirits. No amount of psychological treatment or treatment of trauma will rid you of that. What’s needed, at least according to the girls and boys in different countries, is some traditional healing or ritual that involves washing away or cleansing them of the spiritual impurities they had picked up by virtue of being around dead people and killing.

VOW 5 | Child Soldiers
Child Soldiers: The belief of being around dead people or killing people contaminates you and that you carry bad spirits, no amount of psychological treatment will rid you of that. Instead, the traditional healing or rituals will cleanse the spiritual impurities they picked.


I could bring this to a head by talking about a boy for a moment in Angola. The team I was working with at that time was focused mostly on trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. That was very definitely a big problem. There was a fourteen-year-old boy who presented himself, and he said his big problem was that he couldn’t sleep at night. The uncle and team asked him, “Why is that?” He said, “The spirit of the man I killed comes to me at night and asks, ‘Why did you do this to me?’” When we asked what did that mean to him, he explained that where he lived to be well meant that there was harmony between the ancestors and the living. It was the ancestors who were all powerful and who controlled what happens in the world of the living.

His belief was that the spirit of the man he had killed was haunting him. He was trapped in the spirit and he couldn’t make the transition between the realm of the living and the ancestors. The belief culturally was that the spirit was all-powerful and could kill the boy and also kill members of his family. It could literally jump from him to other people. Members of his family and community were absolutely terrified of him.

This boy had a tremendous stigma that arose from a spiritual condition. He also had a profound fear for his own life that didn’t relate to the trauma per se but to his spiritual belief system. Here was an example of a boy who needed some trauma and spiritual healing. Fortunately, we asked who could help him, and he told us of the healers where he worked.

We went out and found healers from his home province who were willing to work with him. Those healers were able to do rituals in which they called the entire community together. The healer would demarcate a safe space using special herbs that were believed to keep out angry spirits. The healer would take the boy’s shirt off and would then ritually wash him with soap and herbs that were believed to expunge or pull out the bad spirits.

They would also fumigate the boy. They would put his head under a blanket and ask him to breathe the vapours being given off by special herbs that were being boiled. The inhalation of these things was believed to expunge the bad spirits. Typically, an offering is made with the slaughter of a goat which has considerable value amongst people who are quite hungry and may have only one meal a day.

At the end of the ceremony, the healer asked the boy to step across the threshold of his hut and out into the civilian world. As he did so, the healer announced this boy’s life as a soldier had ended. He is now a civilian, and he can do all the things that we do. There is no reason to fear him. This collectively conducted ritual had an immediate and profound benefit in terms of social acceptance of the boy. It meant that the level of spiritual stigma was immediately reduced because people felt confident that the healer had faithfully conducted the appropriate ritual and that the boy was no longer haunted and terrified by this angry spirit. If I could leap back now to Sierra Leone, the same was true of many of the girls in the Northern province who experienced sexual violence and who were around dead bodies.

They believed that they had to be purified by traditional means. Again, ritual washing, collectivised process, and then re-entry back into the community wherein the healer presented them as pure and able to eat off the same plate with other people. The reason why this is important is the girls themselves say, “Our big problem is that people won’t talk with us. They keep their distance. They call us rebel girls. They make fun of us and even attack us.”

Once this ritual is done, the level of social acceptance goes way up. Their stigma goes down, and things get much better. It’s not a one-stop shop treatment. They may still need some Westernised treatment for trauma. Most often, in order to fully integrate, they need to be seen as good mothers. The vast majority of girls in armed groups in places like Sierra Leone became mothers while they were inside the armed group.

They are judged by people on the basis of whether they are a good family member. If they’re out drinking at night, smoking weed, and engaging in aggressive behaviour when they are back in their community, communities will reject them and behold them at arm’s length. They’ll say, “Those girls are like animals.” If they go through the traditional cleansing ceremony and if the community has worked with them and the family is accepting them. Above all, if the girls seem serious, they’re committed to their children and are working for their health, wanting to earn money through doing petty business or agriculture, and using that money not to drink or to buy fancy clothes but to send their children to school.

Community members look at that and say, “This girl has potential. She is a good village member. We respect her.” The stigma otherwise for girls when these things do not happen is absolutely huge. First of all, they’re blamed for their pregnancy unfairly the fact that they were raped by their captor. Their children carry a double stigma. They are born out of wedlock, and they’re rebel children. The level of stigma is great, and this needs much more attention.

The vast majority of the mental health and psychosocial work that’s done for these young people, unfortunately, is aimed more at individual healing at alleviating symptoms of depression, acting out, and having flashbacks and nightmares. That is quite important, but it is reducing stigma and aiding social acceptance that is even more important or at least equally important.

That’s what we don’t have an adequate handle on. Part of the problem is that to gain, enable this social acceptance, and restore the relationship between individuals, families, and communities, you have to pay attention to cultural rights. Western psychologists are sceptical of cultural rights. They may view them as superstition or as folklore, or they may view them as harmful so they don’t want to get involved. The other thing is that to be a good family member and a good mother, you have to earn money. Many of the girls in Sierra Leone, Kenya, Angola, and other places have told me, “When I have cash in my cash box, that’s when people respect me and see me as serious,” then you’re a desired marriage partner and great things begin happening for you.

This takes you into the realm of economics. Psychologists don’t feel qualified to speak economics. A lot of important opportunities are missed. The key thing to do in reintegration work is to perform a multidisciplinary team that intersects health, psychology, economics, or livelihoods and education. There may be others you want to bring in as well, according to the context, then you’ve got to work in a way that is culturally humble and where you admit that as a Westerner and an outsider.

The key thing to do in reintegration work is to perform a multidisciplinary team that intersects health, psychology, economics, or livelihoods and education. Click To Tweet

You have preconceptions that may not apply in that context. There may be cultural beliefs, identities, values, and resources, such as healers and rituals, that are important for reintegration. You may have no idea what they are. It’s important to recognise the knowledge of local people, not to come in as the expert and put yourself above them but to learn with them and adopt a stance of co-learning. There are things that local people can teach us about their cultural beliefs and practices, what it means to be a well-child or young person in that context, and how to reduce stigma and ongoing gender-based violence that oftentimes confronts and affects girls who’ve been formally recruited.

We need to learn from these things. It may be true that we bring ideas to the table as well, but my strong advice is don’t start with the outside. Start with the local expertise and then bring in outside ideas, not with a big bag of cash and not with the idea that we’re going to impose it on local people, but maybe ask people, “Do you see problems such as this in young people?” Maybe they act out and cause problems, they’re very nervous and cannot sleep, or they even have problems with criminality or banditry.

Lots of times, local people will say, “We do see some individuals who have those problems, and then share that.” In some other countries, there are certain steps that have been taken, such as these that were useful. Maybe there’s some potential usefulness in this context. Local people think about it and then take it on. What I’m trying to suggest is a levelling of the playing field. It’s not the outsiders who hold the power.

The power comes from the local people themselves. It’s part of their process and their agency of reweaving their cultural identity, social fabric, and social networks, which have been disrupted by war and to create their own meaning. This is how people heal. It’s not all done by Western psychologists and psychiatrists, even though I do think we have something essential to offer that a lot of it comes down to how we do it.

The power comes from the local people themselves. It's part of their process and their agency of reweaving their cultural identity, social fabric, and social networks, which war has disrupted, and creating their meaning. This is how people heal. Click To Tweet

There are amazing points you’ve made in there, but one of them probably resonates most strongly with me is that I find it fascinating that we are naive to exclude the local population. Another point that stands out is that everything you’re talking there about how we manage the experiences of these children. Particularly, you started talking about gender-based violence and victim shaming, which is something that’s very present in our own “advanced societies.” Everything you’re saying there to try to help some of these children get a new start in life also applies oftentimes in our own societies. Certainly, the Western economies are not immune, although we don’t see it at this scale and not to this level of violence.

You’ve mentioned this in your book. We might have been somewhere else that I’ve read some of the other work. When you look at some of the gangs, and particularly both in your country and Australia as well, we have a huge problem with gang violence, which oftentimes are basically children as well. The issues that we are facing in some of these places across the globe are experiencing real war and conflict. The lessons we take and learn there can also apply in our own backyards. I find it fascinating that we don’t do that.

In the US, part of the problem is American exceptionalism, the idea that somehow we know better or have better ideas. There is more than a little hubris and arrogance associated with that view, and I think it’s quite wrong. We have all of those problems right here at home. In the US, there are large numbers of children who grew up in abject poverty in streets that are controlled by gangs where it’s dangerous. You cannot walk outside alone unless you carry a weapon. Even if you carry a weapon, you may become a victim. Children are recruited at very young ages to do things like become spotters to identify when the police are coming or pass out drugs to become drug dealers on the idea that a child will be less likely to be noticed by police or detectives.

Sometimes, children join gangs because they find a sense of meaning and identity, or maybe their parents are abusing or neglecting them. They may have parents who are addicted to methamphetamine or very serious narcotics and/or incapable of taking care of them. They find their brothers, sisters, and gangs, and that becomes a surrogate family. Out of their activities, they acquire a new sense of meaning and purpose in life, even though horribly, it’s not built around education and positive values, but around negative values such as engaging in the drug trade and so on.

They do find the positive values of their surrogate families and take care of each other. It’s a matter of push and pull that lands them inside the armed group. After that has happened, the vast majority of people who’ve been part of gangs will either be dead or imprisoned by the time they’re 21. This is what the data say in the US. What are they looking at lifelong? Will they ever be able to fit back into a civilian environment?

VOW 5 | Child Soldiers
Child Soldiers: The majority of people who have been part of gangs will either be dead or imprisoned when they’re 21. This is what the data say in the US.


Our society has the largest incarcerated population per capita of any in the world, and where people of colour and minority status are incarcerated at an incredible rate. These are not only massive rights violations, but they’re situations that require us to be humble. To learn from what has been done in other countries so that we can enable people to escape this trap and prevent their recruitment to begin with, create positive pathways for the positive development of children and young people. If they do get caught up in gangs and even land in prison, find a way to help them transition out and back into meaningful lives.

There are lots of good examples of this. Society is oftentimes stigmatised badly. In the US, to have a record of a felony is something that you can never erase, and it is poisonous and toxic for your record. There are a lot of changes that need to be made in order to get in touch with the fact that no matter how horrendous the experience and the upbringing of young people have been, they’re human beings who have rights. They’re not a lost cause.

The vast majority of children in armed groups and even in gangs can make a transition. There are some wonderful examples of people who had been written off as a lost generation making a transition, becoming leaders in their own right, and trying to form peace between rival gangs. We are working with communities to try to form more positive associations and youth groups so that youth aren’t drawn down the same pathways that these young people were drawn to. We need to respect their resilience to support them by taking this kind of holistic approach of working across individual families, communities, and societies that I’ve been describing.

I do sincerely hope that people like yourself and the waves you’re making have the right impact. One that I wanted to ask is in relation to the process of dehumanisation. Your book talks about this extensively. Children about basically exposed progressively to various levels of violence so that they themselves ultimately become perpetrators. Is that how that process works, or perhaps I should say, can you describe that process to us?

It’s complex. It happens in different ways and places. One of the descriptions I was giving, which is worth taking note of was of the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, where the army of Museveni, the President of Uganda was fighting against the children forces. There was a rogue group within that so-called breakaway group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. That was horrific in what it did to children.

Quite often, they would go into a community, shoot it up, take control, and they would call certain children to their side. They were then their captors, and they would force those children to kill someone from their own village or even their own family to break the bonds that they wouldn’t be able to go back.

Once they’re inside the armed group, the leader, Joseph Kony, knows very well that the young people are thinking about escape. What he did was he would set an example. Oftentimes, they were on long forced marches with very little water or food and had to carry heavy loads. The first time a child stumbled, they might let him try to get up, but if he didn’t get up or if he complained, they would kill him. If a child tried to escape, the method that was used was to have all the children form a circle around that child, and they would give each one a block of wood or a bat of the equivalent of a big stick that would inflict serious wounds. They would have everyone beat that child to death.

This was horrific, in part because everyone had to engage in the beating, or they were next. They were told that, and they knew it was true because they had seen it happen. It’s crafted to make it so that no child knows who dealt the death blow. This helps absolve young people of the moral angst that they would ordinarily feel from killing another human being. It’s also a progressive exposure to violence. If you take an ordinary child and you expose them to a beheading, they will be profoundly upset and even become incapacitated. They will cry, be fearful, upset, and terrorised.

On the other hand, if you tell them that there’s an enemy and you make that enemy out to be so savage that they want to kill your mother, father, and you, and they want to do horrible things to you, they want to cut children up into little pieces. These are the kinds of demonic images that armed groups and leaders countries use. The leaders of the US use this in regard to the Japanese people. They did it as a means of dehumanising them precisely for the purpose of preparing people for killing.

To state it bluntly, it’s very hard to kill someone whom you’re picturing as a father or a mother. To picture that person not as a human being but as a monkey or as subhuman lice, a vermin, or someone who’s satanic, who’s a rapist and a killer who’s looking to come after your wife and your family, it becomes much easier to kill. These enemy images are implanted by a lot of leaders of the armed forces and armed groups. For example, in Islamic State, this is one of the tactics that portray the demonic other as the infidel who is involved in undermining Islamic values, which are exposing people to arrogance and greed, filth, and decadence.

The only way to correct it is to form a caliphate that will become the home of a thousand years and honour Allah. There’s a bit of ideology that’s mixed in with that as well. It’s these things oftentimes combined with progressive exposure to violence, fear that you’ll be killed if you don’t do them, and with a reward if you do them. The Lord’s Resistance Army needed out rewards in the form of girls, drink, and access to safer quarters and commander’s positions for the young people who showed bravery, willing to kill on the battlefield or even within their own troop or group when the orders were given.

VOW 5 | Child Soldiers
Child Soldiers: The Lord’s Resistance Army needed rewards through girls, drinks, and access to safer quarters and commander’s positions for the young people who showed bravery or were willing to kill on the battlefield or within their group when ordered.


The evidence is that large numbers of people, we don’t know exactly what a percentage is, but it’s quite, it’s much higher than we’d like to believe. It’s not like 10% or 20%. It’s much far more likely to be 2/3 or even 3/4 of young people. Given these horrific circumstances can learn to become quite brutal, and many can learn to become killers. Some can learn to become killers who do not blink an eye at taking the life of other human beings who even have an ideology and a rationale that justifies it as the right thing to do and is the thing that will bring their people liberation or will protect their cultural identity from the savagery and the demonic practices of the other.

It’s amazing to think about the power of the environment and how it can shape our behaviours. You made a very interesting point about the military as somebody who was previously and is in uniform that resonates quite strongly about how we, even through our training, dehumanise the other, whoever that other might be. Even through language that we use in the military doctrine or even in orders or the tactical manoeuvres to neutralise an enemy is such a blunt and cold word that doesn’t create an image.

It’s very surgical. It doesn’t talk about annihilating. Does it talk about potentially maiming, harming civilians, or anything like that? To clear an area is such a clean and efficient way to describe a military action and removes any idea of humanity that might be standing in that spot. One question I want to ask is, you’ve done hundreds of interviews with children, given what some of them go through and the extent of the violence they’re involved in, do they recover? Can they ever recover from these traumatic events?

It is the case that the vast majority can recover. I’m reluctant to put a percentage on it, but I tend to think it’s very high. It’s probably 90% or more. Humans have a capacity for resilience that is largely untapped and that is much deeper than any of us had ever suspected. Western psychology, in particular, has had such a strong deficit orientation that it’s underplayed the importance of resilience and the positive capacities that people have. Particularly, if their social environment transforms itself and becomes very supportive for enabling a young person to heal, cope in positive ways, be well, and come to terms with what they’ve done and define meaning in life.

In many war zones, the problem is that local people remain highly fearful of the young people because these are the folks who have been part of an armed group. They say, “We remember you very well. You came, raped, pillaged, plundered, and killed our wives and children.” There is a lot of fear. There may be a desire for reprisal. One of the things that psychologists need to think about, and that everyone interested in thinking about healing needs to think about, is justice. I’m not thinking about retributive justice or an eye for an eye but rather restorative justice.

Psychologists and everyone interested in healing should think about restorative justice, not retributive justice. Click To Tweet

The fact is a lot of children are seen as having done harm to people. They need to give something back to the community before the community can accept them. For example, in Sierra Leone, the full array of things that I’ve described, the education, destigmatising, traditional healing, and participation through culturally constructed rituals, may not be enough if local people still fear the young person or believe that they need to give something back.

There are culturally constructed processes that can enable restorative justice. In one case, there was a boy whose parents were very worried about him, and they wanted him to be able to integrate. The parents went to the paramount chief, who was viewed as the keeper of the land and the highest authority, even higher than the president of the country. They asked whether he would consider having an audience with their son.

Finally, the chief agreed. When the boy entered his chambers, the boy laid face down on the floor, prostate, and reached his arm out. He extended his arm out and held the chief’s ankle. It was a pester of extreme humility and subjugation. The chief then asked him to tell him everything that had happened and that he had done.

The chief had no doubt been listening to other sources. He knew what the young boy had done, but he was listening to whether the boy was going, to tell the truth and show remorse. The boy described in detail what he had done, and he did show remorse. The chief basically said, “You have harmed our people. You need to apologise and do it with sincerity.” The whole village was called together. The chief announced that the boy had shown remorse and had told everything that he had done and had done this in a culturally appropriate way. He was here to speak to the people, and the boy apologised. His nonverbals were a great humility. He hung his head in shame and said he should never have done those bad things.

He will have a hard time living with those things, but he would do his best to work hard and give something back to the people to be a good community member. The chief encouraged people to accept that. The people were willing to go along with that. At the same time, the chief assigned them to what you and I might consider community service. Literally, it’s giving something back. If there were buildings that had been damaged by the war, he might be involved in work crews to rebuild the buildings, or if crops have been damaged, he might be out brushing the land or tilling the crops to help improve the agricultural yield.

People saw this and they saw him giving back. During that time period, he was also under the moral tutelage of an elder who was viewed as very good at working with young people and helping them reflect on their values and their responsibilities as citizens and as community members. Over time, this boy became well-accepted and integrated quite effectively.

On the other hand, I have seen a very small minority of people who have ongoing problems. One boy in Angola had great difficulty. He said he had acquired a taste for killing and that he enjoyed the thrill of it. He even enjoyed the smell of the blood. He said that even though he had been in a reintegration program, he wasn’t sure that he could stick with it because when his mother did things like cook a big pot of red beans, it would evoke images of the blood flowing and it would ignite on irrational theory and desire for him to go kill again. There’s a lot that we don’t understand. To be quite honest, psychiatrists and psychologists have learned a lot, but there’s an awful lot that we don’t know.

Brain science is still a fairly young science. We don’t know whether there are long-term changes in brains that occur from killing at an early age. However, we are finding that exposure to extreme forms of violence, even as a victim, much less a perpetrator at a young age, can have epigenetic effects that basically activate particular genes that then promulgate certain kinds of reactions and patterns psychologically, lifelong.

VOW 5 | Child Soldiers
Child Soldiers: Exposure to extreme forms of violence, even as a victim, much less a perpetrator at a young age, can have epigenetic effects that activate particular genes that then promulgate reactions and patterns psychologically, lifelong.


Something like that may turn out to be the case in some former child soldiers. We don’t know. I’m going to leave that open as a source of complexity. Maybe among some of the readers, there’ll be people who want to devote their lives toward addressing some of these complexities and can make a contribution in that regard. I would reiterate that the vast majority of children are able to heal. They are able to reintegrate and construct meaningful lives as good family and community members in ways that provide themselves and their families with hope, meaning, and well-being.

That’s reassuring to hear. I echo the challenge to our readers to dedicate their lives to understanding the genetic components of the impact. It’s also amazing to hear the power of the community and how the community can help reintegrate. That’s perhaps a lesson that we can take into our own backyards and nations rather than locking some of these minors away for life and throwing away the key. I’m grateful for your time. If I can squeeze out a little bit more of you. If you could change one thing, whether it be a policy, decision-making process, or even how a global body carries out its work that would help alleviate the problem of child soldiering, what would that be?

It would be a change in the way adult policymakers and adult practitioners like myself work. It would be oriented towards listening to the voices of the children themselves. Not as victims or passive objects, but as living human beings whose lived experience has given them a depth of knowledge, even if it’s horrific in some cases that we need to understand through their eyes. In short, we continue to keep missing the ball by imposing adult preconceptions that don’t match the lived experience of children. We may not understand the cultural meanings and context of what they’ve been through. We may not understand what it means for a girl to have been raped and sexually violated. We need to understand through their eyes what’s important.

Along with that, it’s not enough to give a voice and listen. We have to also recognise that young people are agents. Their agency is part of their healing process. Healing occurs in part when we reassert our sense of self-efficacy and control over events in life, even on a smaller or limited scale. Young people’s agency is profoundly important for that, but also because they know what their priorities are and what would enable them to integrate in the most effective manner. For a long time, former girl soldiers were economics viewed as important and were taught as a means of livelihood to become themes theses or to take up economic activities that were viewed as traditionally important for women. The girls who’ve been commanders and who’ve given life and death orders don’t want any part of that.

VOW 5 | Child Soldiers
Child Soldiers: We should recognize that young people are agents. Their agency is part of their healing process. Healing occurs in part when we reassert our sense of self-efficacy and control over events in life, even on a smaller or limited scale.


They say, “I am someone who’s decisive and can size up complex situations. I can speak on my feet. I don’t want to go through a reintegration program that’s going to make me a demure seamstress. That’s not me.” We need to listen to young people and create space for them to help create some of their own self-guided activities wherein they work with members of their families and communities. They make the decisions about how reintegration programming will occur. On the prevention side, if we can listen more to young people and listen better, we’ll find out that young people who parents or community members think are doing okay. They may be in school, but they may be thinking about suicide.

They may have suicidal ideation or intent and may be miserable living in families that are neglecting them or that are making them feel inferior. In some way, they are not meeting their needs. It’s when we listen to the lived experiences of young people, respects their capacities for change, and work alongside them so that we’re not burdening them with healing but trying to work with them to build a better future, then I think we get farther. My question would be, are we willing to listen?

It's when we listen to the lived experiences of young people when respect their capacities for change and work alongside them so that we're not burdening them with healing but trying to work with them to build a better future then we get farther. Click To Tweet

You’ve had hundreds of interviews with child soldiers. On the one hand, this was hugely useful data in support of this exceptionally important topic, but on the other hand, you were interviewing children who have experienced grave abuses of their innocence. Undoubtedly, this must also have an impact on you. How have you dealt with it? How do you deal with wrestling with such challenging traumas?

I dealt with it personally by taking time out for myself when I thought I needed it. I’m not always as good about that as I should be. While I was in places like Sierra Leone, Angola, or other war zones, taking time to cry, grieve and recognise that you’re carrying this stuff around and you can’t act like you’re impervious to it or you’re “strong” enough to contain it. It comes back to get you. Working on it and processing are important. Writing is often very important for me and helps give me a chance to work through it. The most important thing for me is being able to talk with my wife, Kathleen Kostelny, who I share this work with.

We’re able to talk these things through. That means more than I can say, and then nature. Being in nature, being able to do special rituals in nature and relieve myself of certain anxieties, and own the pain but find a way to work through it and channel it into something meaningful that I’m not afraid of it. It ultimately has some larger purpose. Those things have helped. It’s relationships, spirituality, nature, and being conscious and intentional about creating space for grieving.

It’s an important question because the humanitarian workers as a whole are asked to endure these horrible things. Oftentimes, agencies and even individuals are not oriented toward self-care. It is a very slippery slope. It can lead to substance abuse and making bad judgments with the former children and child soldiers. It can lead to long-term psychological dysfunctionality. These are things that need to be taken seriously by everyone working for and with the children. I’m happy to say that the children have taught me a lot about how to cope and find a resilient pathway forward.

Mike, you are truly an admirable human being. I’m very appreciative of the time you’ve given me. I want to thank you for all the work you do because this is exceptionally important work. The book has been out for some time, but I think it’s as relevant now as it was many years ago when it was published. I invite my readers to take a read. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. I hope to speak to you again in the future.

Thanks, Maz. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you. I hope this is useful for all your audience. Please keep up your good work.


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