The Story of Ahmad: An Innocent Victim of Child Recruitment

The story of Ahmad, the 12-year-old child, who escaped forced recruitment is an example of the horrific reality of the use of Child Soldiers in armed conflicts.

Wherever there is an armed conflict, child recruitment is a sad reality. This week, the United Nations marks the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers to call action against this practice, and support children who are affected by it.

To coincide with the event, a study of the United Nations University, a UN think tank, found contrary to conventional wisdom, ideology may not be predominantly responsible for child recruitment into armed groups but intertwined with other factors like community and identity. The study drew cases from Syria and other conflict areas where most children do not so much “opt” into conflict as “grow” into it. Physical safety and food security, family and peer networks, financial incentives, coercion and the allure of armed groups provide a ready-made community, identity and status for young people.

Syria is not an exception. No official statistics exist, but children are believed to be or have been recruited into armed groups.

On several occasions during humanitarian cross-line convoy missions, UN staff witnessed first-hand children carrying weapons larger than their size. But reports of child recruitment by armed groups taking place in camps in northeast Syria exist as well.

UNHCR and sister UN protection agencies tackle this problem with notable success. *Ahmad is one child of many who was rescued.

“The neighbors told me my family could be in Dahrah so I went to look for them, they weren’t there.”

Ahmad, 12-years old, originally from Deir Ezzor, was away from his home only to return to find it in rubbles, and his family nowhere to be found. “I was shocked, but the neighbors told me that my family could be in Dahrah, as most people fled there, so I went to look for them, but they weren’t there,” explained Ahmad to a UNHCR protection staff.

Ahmad started his journey through smugglers and like thousands of displaced Syrians in the northeast was brought to Areesha camp. Ahmad, alone and scared, sought comfort sleeping in a UNHCR’s distribution tent, and this is where a UNHCR staff found him.

UNHCR, conscious of the risk that Ahmad could be tricked into recruitment in the night, worked to find an alternative care arrangement for him.

UNHCR learned soon after that he had disappeared; promises of power and money for a desperate child did the trick. But for UNHCR, to accept this wrongdoing was not an option. A rigorous intervention was set in motion and enough advocacy made; Ahmad returned, and not alone but with a peer who had been another victim of recruitment.

Ahmad, angry he was pulled out of an armed group, refused to talk to UNHCR. But he was explained that there is a better life outside the armed game. And he was given an alternative to help rescue others who could fall into the same trap.

*Samer, an eight-year-old boy, was identified by UNHCR staff in the same camp, an unaccompanied, traumatized boy, isolated himself until he met Ahmad, who made tremendous efforts to break Samer’s isolation and inspire him to integrate with his peers. Ahmad, no longer being a beneficiary in need, felt empowered by helping another boy integrate into the community.

Yet, for UNHCR, a challenging task lay ahead before Ahmad regains his childhood and becomes completely safe; today rather than tomorrow, his family had to be traced. Tireless efforts of caring UNHCR staff led to Markada town, kilometers away, and here they were found. The efforts paid off, and Ahmad’s family made their way to Areesha camp.

The tears of happiness in the eyes of Ahmad and his family when they reunited, tells the story of how much it meant for Ahmad and his family to protect and be protected.

“Thank you so much for taking care of my son and keeping him safe. Your work could never be forgotten,”

“Thank you so much for taking care of my son and keeping him safe. Your work could never be forgotten,” said Ahmad’s father. And his sister was even happier, “I never gave up. I always knew I was going to see my brother again,” she said excitedly to the UNHCR staff.

This is the story of one rescued child and no one knows how many children were not as lucky as Ahmad.

“The events we experience during our childhood shapes the people we become”, says Maya Ameratunga, UNHCR Syria’s Deputy Representative (Protection). “Conflicts and crises have a devastating impact on children, who make up half of all displaced populations and are among the most vulnerable – separated from their families, abused, exploited, neglected and often drawn into armed groups. Young people like Ahmad must be protected from the scourge of abuses like child recruitment. They need to be reunified with loving families. Access to education and constructive life skills will give them the dignity they so deserve and the hope for a peaceful and positive future. Children have no part in warfare.”

*Names have been changed for protection purposes

**Areej Kassab assisted with reporting from Qamishli