Child Soldiers Speak Out

These quotes are from former and current child soldiers from Colombia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Burma. These children's willingness to speak out is deeply appreciated.

By P. W. Singer

If you join the paramilitaries [the AUC in Columbia], your first duty is to kill. They tell you, "Here you are going to kill." From the very beginning, they teach you how to kill. I mean when you arrive at the camp, the first thing they do is kill a guy, and if you are a recruit they call you over to prick at him, to chop off his hands and arms.

–A., age 121

They bring the people they catch ... to the training course. My squad had to kill three people. After the first one was killed, the commander told me that the next day I'd have to do the killing. I was stunned and appalled. I had to do it publicly, in front of the whole company, 50 people. I had to shoot him in the head. I was trembling. Afterwards, I couldn't eat. I'd see the person's blood. For a week, I had a hard time sleeping.... They'd kill three or four people each day in the course. Different squads would take turns, would have to do it on different days. Some of the victims cried and screamed. The commanders told us we had to learn how to kill.

–O., age 15 (recruited by FARC at age 12)2

 Seven weeks after I arrived, there was combat. I was very scared. It was an attack on the paramilitaries. We killed about seven of them. They killed one of us. We had to drink their blood to conquer our fear. Only the scared ones had to do it. I was the most scared of all, because I was the newest and the youngest.

–A., age 123

I joined the Army when I was 14 because, one, I was persuaded that the only way to get my parents back or to stop that from happening was to be a part of the Army and kill those people who were responsible for killing my parents. But, you see, the thing that is very disturbing about this ... is that once I joined the Army and started fighting, I was also killing other people's parents and so I was creating a circle of revenge where I killed somebody else's parents, he's going to be persuaded by a different group, either the RUF [Revolutionary United Front] or the Army, saying, "Okay. Join the Army and kill this person who killed your parents." So, it's a circle of revenge. And the disturbing thing about it is that it's kids that are killing kids.

–I., age 144

The military was in need of people to increase their number. All the boys in the village were asked to join the army. There was no way out. If I left the village I would get killed by the rebels who would think that I was a spy. On the other hand, if I stayed in the village and refused to join the army, I wouldn't be given food and would eventually be thrown out, which was as good as being dead.

–I., age 145

I am praying for forgiveness so that more fruitful things can come our way, praying that God will help us to become good people.

–Z., age 146

When we arrived at their base, the rebels trained me on how to use a gun. They showed me how to dismantle a weapon and put it back together again. They showed me how to fire the gun and how to clean it. They taught me how to make sure I didn't get injured when it recoils.

–P., age 127

P. W. Singer is senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of numerous publications on child soldiers and other military issues. This article is excerpted with permission from Children at War, Pantheon, 2005.


1. Human Rights Watch, "You'll Learn Not to Cry": Child Combatants in Columbia (New York, September 2003), p. 95.

2. Human Rights Watch, "You'll Learn Not to Cry," p. 64.

3. Human Rights Watch, "You'll Learn Not to Cry," p. 64.

4. UN panel, "Reclaiming Our Children," UN headquarters, transcript, May 7, 2002.

5. Document provided to author by I., a former child soldier, June 2002.

6. Tom Masland, "Voices of the Children: We Bet and Killed People," Newsweek, May 13, 2002.

7. "Child Soldiers," Radio Netherlands, January 21, 2000,

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American Educator, Winter 2005-2006