Momcilo Gavric joined the Serbian army at eight, after his family was murdered by the Austro-Hungarian forces. Gavric, the youngest soldier in World War I, was, however, more fortunate than most minor boys — and girls — compelled to take up guns, or wear suicide belts, in the world’s worst conflict-ridden areas. After the war, Gavric went to England briefly to study, and despite enduring imprisonment by the Germans and tussles with Tito’s regime, lived to be a father and died in 1993, two years into the Yugoslav civil war. Wasil Ahmad, the 10-year-old Afghan boy celebrated for his role in battling the Taliban in a siege last summer, and now killed by the Taliban for the same reason, would never know what it’s like to be a young man or to grow old.
Wasil’s is the story of the child in combat, across continents and cultures. Militants — Islamists as well as anti-Islamist militias, drug cartels and ethnic warrior outfits — continue to use children in the line of conflict, as soldiers, messengers, spies and human shields. Any encouragement or legitimisation by the state of the use of children in conflict is doubly worrisome. By feting Wasil, the boy who picked up the gun after his policeman father was killed by the Taliban, the provincial government may have ended up publicising him as a target for the militants. Undoubtedly, the Taliban’s crime is paramount. Yet, the public celebrations of him, despite President Ashraf Ghani’s strict orders last year against the use of children in security forces and pro-government militias, were also fraught with dangers.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child proclaims the inadmissibility of those below 15 in direct hostilities. Yet, two and a half decades since its adoption, states and societies haven’t done enough. It’s still only a hope that war-zone children will hold on to their childhood.