This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
For 377 days, Gracia Burnham, an American missionary, was held captive by Abu Sayyaf, a Filipino group associated with Al Qaeda. During that time, she experienced horrors we can't even imagine. She also gained an insight to one of the world's most pressing issues.
I'm not talking about Islamic extremism, although Burnham obviously has some hard-earned insights into that phenomenon. I'm talking about the use of child soldiers.
After being kidnapped, Gracia and her husband Martin, whose story is told in the June 4 issue of the New Republic, were starved and force-marched through the jungle. Along the way they saw other hostages beheaded and raped. Finally, she saw her husband Martin die after a botched rescue attempt.
One of Burnham's principal tormentors was a 14-year-old Abu Sayyaf soldier named Ahmed. Burnham admits to loathing him for "hoarding food when she had none, throwing stones at her while she bathed — fully clothed — in the river, and pushing her along the trail saying ‘faster, faster.'"
And yet Burnham prayed for a way to love Ahmed. She got her chance after he was wounded in a firefight and soiled himself. When she saw that he was embarrassed, she thought of her own son and felt love for Ahmed. She washed Ahmed's clothes in the river before he was taken into the jungle on a stretcher, bound, gagged and "stark raving mad." To this day, she has no idea what happened to him.
Apart from being loved by his victim, Ahmed's story is typical. On any given day, there are an estimated 250,000 children, some as young as eight, being used by "state-run armies, paramilitaries and guerilla groups around the world." They're employed as soldiers, porters, sex slaves and even human mine detectors.
In Uganda alone, 25,000 to 30,000 children have been abducted by an especially brutal group calling itself "The Lord's Resistance Army." Children are brutalized and then made to brutalize and kill others, including their own siblings.
Other countries where child soldiers are being used include Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Burundi, to name but a few. However the children are "recruited," the result is the same: "their health and lives are endangered and their childhoods are sacrificed."
If all of this comes as a surprise to you, you're not alone. The war in Uganda, never mind who's fighting it, has been called a "forgotten war." That's the first thing that needs to be changed. The Church needs to draw attention to what, by any reasonable measure, is a humanitarian crisis. To help you understand the issue, we've got some resources at our website.
You may also want to learn about a recently-introduced bill called "The Child Soldiers Prevention Act." Co-sponsored by Senator Brownback, it seeks to put into action what the Congress has already put into words: that the United States should "lead efforts…to end this abuse of human rights."
Not surprisingly, Christians are among the bill's principal sponsors and supporters. Because if Gracia Burnham could love Ahmed, the child soldier who tormented her, the rest of us surely can at least speak out on behalf of the many thousands like him.