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God's Army

By Gary Lane, Christian Broadcasting Network News
8 March 2000

-- Chiang Mai, Thailand -- Look closely at the faces of the victims of war--children orphaned, others maimed, their lives forever altered because of the madness of men.

But these children are also victims of war. Many are barely big enough to carry guns, yet they are engaged in armed struggles and conflicts around the world.

"They are going to be taught to kill, they are going to be taught that power comes from the barrel of a gun and that their way is the only way," says Adotei Akwei.

Akwei is the Africa Advocacy Director at Amnesty International in Washington.

"It is almost a complete wiping away of their potential to be productive, balanced, happy members of society and also productive adults," Akwei says.

The United Nations estimates at least 300,000 children are combatants in armed conflicts around the globe. Most are members of militias in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Many of the child soldiers are orphans, or their mothers are widowed and unable to care for them. Some parents urge their children to join militias because they know they'll be well clothed and fed. But in most cases, the youthful soldiers are unaware of the risks or consequences of war.

"There have been very, very sad reports of children thinking that they could join revolutionary groups and it would be like a movie," says Akwei, "that there would be no pain, they would be part of a glorious liberation struggle and then once it was over, they would go back to normal lives."

But often this is the type of life to which many of the children return: as those crippled by the wounds of war. Others perish before they make it back.

Just ask members of Burma's God's Army, a splinter militia of ethnic Burmese -- Karen Christians, Buddhists and animists -- fighting the Rangoon military regime.

God's Army was started three years ago by Johnny and Luther Htoo. The twin brothers were only nine years old at the time. The boys began preaching in a church and said they believed God was calling them to lead a small band of soldiers into battle against a Burmese Army outpost.

They won the battle. Believing that the Htoo twins could make themselves invisible and could supernaturally deflect bullets, others soon joined the guerilla cult.

They now have a band of about 200. In late January, at least one soldier from the God's Army militia reportedly joined nine armed Burmese students in the seizure of hostages at a hospital in Ratchaburi, Thailand. The gunmen demanded medical treatment for fellow militia members who had been wounded in attacks by both the Thai and Burmese armies.

The gunmen reportedly did not threaten to kill their hostages. Nevertheless, Thai commandos stormed the hospital and reportedly shot each gunman in the head. Johnny and Luther Htoo were not involved in the raid.

Adotei Akwei suggests many child soldiers are stuck in militias like the God's Army and are given few options to seek a better life.

"In many of these militias, these children are subjugated to drugs, to alcohol, a very brutal type reorientation whereby whatever individual capacity they had to judge whether they wanted to continue to be members of the militia is almost completely wiped away."

Akwei says nations need to rehabilitate child soldiers and offer them viable alternatives to joining revolutionary groups.

Some in Southeast Asia have embraced an option that has changed their lives.

Some of the boy soldiers of Burma have made it out of the jungle; they've ended up here in northern Thailand. They've laid down their arms. They've surrendered their lives not to the military regime they once fought, but to a higher authority.

About one year ago, 19 Shan boy soldiers found refugee at The House of Hope, an orphanage run by Christian missionaries near Chiang Mai, Thailand. Today, the boy soldiers are among 39 children now receiving education and care at this home.

Like the Karen, the Shan are ethnics engaged in an armed struggle against the Burmese military regime.

15-year old Sarm says he was only ten years old when he took up arms with the Shan resistance army.

Norwegian missionary Inger-Lise Bjoerkeli is the boy's teacher.

They've been going through much more than an adult would ever see and feel," says Bjoerkeli. "We were watching TV one evening and suddenly one of the boys said, 'Oh, by the way, I chopped off a head of a Burmese soldier and the head was rolling down the hill.'"

She says only God could help deliver the boys from experiences like that.

Missionary John Broomfield says Sarm and the other boys were excited once they were given Bibles to read.

"They walked around in awe," says Broomfield. "[The boys would say] [y]ou mean this is God's Word, the Word of God? They would walk around really taking good care, and every now and then they would say to me, 'God's Word. God's Word.' We take the Bible almost for granted, and here these kids were in awe, the Word of God!"

Sarm and the other boy soldiers accepted Christ just three weeks after coming to the House of Hope. Sarm says some day he will return to Burma and his native Shan state.

"God has brought me here so I can study about Him and I will go back and fight, but not with guns and weapons," Sarm says. "I'll go back with the Word of God."

17-year old Orr says he's lost his desire to fight. Now he says he wants to tell the Shan leadership about Jesus.

14-year old Sui Tai became a child combatant at the age of 12. He says he loves his new life in Christ.

"I love to worship Jesus, I love to lift up His name, I just love singing about Him," says the former Shan soldier.

Inger-Lise says these one-time child soldiers have been transformed.

"They're not these small adults anymore," she says. "There is a joy, unspeakable joy...They've become soft; they've become warm. Children. Yeah, children...They say there is a hope. We thought there was only death and killing, but there is more than that. There is a God tat loves us, there's hope...a future...God is putting dreams in them, dreams for a future." >

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