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Every year, children as young as seven are enlisted by more than 50 countries into the armed forces.

Seventy-seven per cent of the recruits witness others being killed; 39 per cent kill; 39 per cent abduct other children, and one third of female abductees are raped.

I joined the army to get food for my mother, my brothers and sisters.

“So many times I just cried inside my heart because I didn’t dare cry out loud,” said a 14-year-old girl, abducted in January 2000 by the Revolutionary United Front, an armed group in Sierra Leone.

While most are taken captive, some, like 15-year-old Jean-Paul, enlist in order to take care of their families. “I joined the army to get food for my mother, my brothers and sisters,” said Jean, one of 4,500 Rwandan children between the ages of 10-18 who served in the military during the country’s civil war.

Servants more than they are soldiers, the children have multiple masters who make them carry guns and ammunition, gather firewood, and perform general errands.

This summer, five Canadian teens left their homes and families to ride over 1,800 kilometres on behalf of these child soldiers.

“Your life is determined by the chances you take and the challenges you choose to face,” says Ben Gunn-Doerge of Ottawa, who, along with high-school friends Sandy MacDonald, Phillip Schleihauf, Jamie MacDonald and Matthieu Halle, cycled from Ottawa to St. John’s, August 1-29.

“Without ordinary people taking risks there would be no progress and change. The greatest thing about the possibility of change is that it is in our own hands!”

A brainchild of 19-year-old Phillip, Child Soldier Cycle inadvertently began in 2009 when Phil, who took a year off from school, unicycled from Victoria, BC, to Ottawa. When Jamie teased him about not “finishing” what he had called his Unicycle across Canada, Phil decided to take the challenge and use it for good.

“Originally I thought of going overseas, but that didn’t end up happening, so I was trying to think of some way I could make a positive change within Canada,” says the Queen’s University electrical engineering student. “One issue that had really struck me while I was in high school was child soldiering.”

Phil decided to finish his route should Jamie join him. And in the end, there were five. “We started the tour by riding out of St. Joe’s (Ottawa), and wrapped up at St. Theresa’s church in St John’s,” says Phil, a member of St. Joseph’s Catholic Parish where they received a blessing prior to their trip.

two hundred and fifty thousand children who are being denied a happy childhood

Funded by the boys, the goal of the trip was not to draw attention to themselves—a hard feat, with one unicyclist and four two-wheelers followed by parents in support vehicles—but to collect two handprints from each individual met; one for local media, and the other, for national.

“We did it to get exposure for the two hundred and fifty thousand children who are being denied a happy childhood,” explains Phil, who’s unicycled for the past eight years. “For the children who are being killed every day; who are turning into killers, and who are being trapped in violence that they cannot escape by themselves.”

Despite being a global travesty, the boys were shocked by how little coverage child soldiers receive—and so, they sought to change that.

“We’re all human,” says Jaime, 18. “We’re all people. We all deserve the same childhood and childhood opportunities, but that’s not what happens. And it’s not right. These kids are being exploited and hardly anyone talks about it because it’s not covered fairly in mainstream media.” Child Soldier Cycle recognizes the sanctity of life, a fact which propelled the Catholic boys in their month-long journey. “While it may have been on an individual basis, I think we all derived strength and inspiration from our faith on the road,” says Phil.

After all, they were obeying the Biblical command to care for the least of these—and when the least are being forced to brand weapons and witness atrocities, it’s a crime not to care.

“I think the nation should support these young people because the cause is a valid one,” Mayor Brad Woodside of Fredericton, NB, told The Daily Gleaner. “There are too many children around the world that are being sent to the battlefield, the workplace or being prostituted. Just because it’s happening at a distance far away, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t object.” Perhaps the boys’ intentions are summed up best by a 15-year-old girl who, abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, was forced to kill a young boy who tried to escape. “Please do your best to tell the world what is happening to us, the children,” she told Amnesty International, “so that other children don’t have to pass through this violence.”

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Emily Wierenga is an author based in Neerlandia, Alberta. Her book, Save My Children, is available through Castle Quay Books.


Originally published in Christian Courier on November 8, 2010.

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