/ 1 August 2007

Former child soldiers want revenge, study shows

Reconciliation efforts in countries where children have been press-ganged into fighting wars need to pay more attention to the severe trauma suffered by many of these combatants, German researchers said on Tuesday.

The United Nations estimates about 250 000 children worldwide are currently fighting in wars — mostly in Africa — but very little research has gone into the effects of such violence on the mental health of young combatants, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study, based on interviews with former Ugandan and Congolese child soldiers, underlines the role psychological trauma may play in their ability to reconcile and one day help put an end to cycles of revenge killing in war-torn regions, the researchers said.

”Our findings indicate that mental distress and mental illness, namely symptoms of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], are associated with war-affected children’s attitudes toward reconciliation and could therefore impose barriers to sustainable and long-term peace building,” the researchers at Germany’s University of Hamburg wrote.

Experts say PTSD symptoms include irritability or outbursts of anger, sleep difficulties, trouble concentrating, extreme vigilance and an exaggerated startle response. A person may initially respond to the trauma with horror or helplessness, then may persistently relive the event.

The study focused on 169 former child soldiers in the two countries in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, a vast area struggling to patch together societies torn apart by years of savage conflict.

The children, aged 11 to 18 years, were living in rehabilitation centres in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo at the time of the study. The two centres have been home to about 20 000 former child soldiers over the past 10 years.

The children surveyed reported that they had been violently recruited, served an average of 38 months and witnessed beatings, shootings and rape, the study said. More than half said they had killed somebody.

With these traumatic experiences leaving about a third of these children with post-traumatic stress symptoms, the researchers wanted to see how the condition might impact a willingness to forgive.

They asked the children to respond to yes/no questions such as: ”I am going to pay back the persons who harmed me for what they did” or ”I am ready to forgive the persons who harmed me.”

The former child soldiers with more severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress were significantly less willing to consider reconciliation and regarded acts of retaliation as a way to overcome their experiences, the study found.

The results indicating a link between post-traumatic stress and an attitude toward reconciliation support the need to promote both physical and psychological care for children affected by war, the authors added.

”Therefore, post-traumatic stress might be an important factor influencing post-conflict situations and may contribute to cycles of violence found in war-torn regions,” the researchers said. — Reuters