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2001 (Narrative date)

Aida was recruited as a child soldier by a militia group in the Philippines at the age of 14 and then prevented from leaving. She was engaged in armed conflict for six months, one of hundreds of thousands of children who participate in armies and armed groups in more than 30 countries around the world. The problem is most critical in Africa, where up to 100,000 children are estimated to be involved in armed conflict. Child soldiers also exist in Afghanistan, Burma, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, though international law sets 18 as the minimum age for all participation in hostilities. In the Philippines, where three major insurgent groups have fought the Philippine military since the 1960s, there are an estimated 2000 child soldiers. The Communist-oriented New People’s Army, established in 1968, began an intense recruitment of children in the 1990s. By 2000, some 25 percent of new recruits were children, and more than ten percent of its regular combatants are now under 18. Parents volunteer children to serve as combatants and camp guards. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front allows the training of children as young as 12. Parents volunteer their children, seeing it as an observation of Islamic teaching, and Muslim youth organizations recruit students from schools and colleges. The Abu Sayyaf (“Bearer of the Sword”), a Muslim separatist group which appeared in the late 1980s, uses Islamic religion to draw minors into the movement, for use as combatants, human shields, and hostages.

The problem then was at first we were happy, but then there were times that we could not buy rice because we didn’t have money. My mother would then be very worried about what we are going to eat, in fact it was not only our mother who thought about this, even us! I would do what I could so that my mother could eat, so that my mother wouldn’t feel so troubled. It’s all right that I experience difficulty, as long as I could help my mother. When I was small, I wanted to do the laundry, so that I could help my mother. I would give my earnings to my mother. My employer would give a loan to my mother, and then I would work to pay for that. My father wasn’t earning much during this time. My mother is really more progressive or more knowledgeable than my father— in almost all aspects. Instead of buying my materials for the school project, the first thing that comes into my mind is to give the money to my mother, to buy food, just so I could help. If I have money I spend it all to buy food.

I was in grade two then. I thought that I would not be able to pass with a score of 85 in the card. I was so worried because I really thought I wouldn’t pass. But it turned out that I had the highest grade. I said to myself I could really make it. But I stopped schooling after that. What a pity.

My employers said that they might go back to Sugbu, and they had been thinking what would happen to me if they left? Maybe they thought that I wouldn’t be able to find work without them. I took care of their children, I did the housekeeping and I would have to feed the pigs. Her husband worked in the rice field. That’s why I couldn’t go to school, because I had so many house chores. I had to wash the clothes and then take care of the child. I would wash the clothes at night, so that when I woke up, there would be less work to do. I would start at six o’clock to cook, then wash and then clean the house. I would wonder how long I could stand the work because I was still a child. When I was already busy with a task, then she would ask me to do something more.

My second employer was the daughter of a teacher I used to work for. When she gave birth, my first employer asked me to work for her daughter. She was also a teacher. There was no one else who could help my parents then, and I wanted to be able to help my parents. I was so exhausted while working there. They wanted me to go to work for their son who had gotten married there. But this was so far, so I didn’t want to go because I would like to see my mother often. That’s what I wanted, to see my mother often. I would cry then because I felt pity for my mother.

I was still small, so when I joined the movement, the people would point out how small I was. There were 30 people, all of them armed. They spoke with me and convinced me to go with them. They told me that I should join them, that I should be on the side of the farmers. They explained to me that there should be equality, that when the farmers sell their products, they should get a fair price for their products, these were the things that they were explaining to me. They told me that if I was inside the movement, then I would be able to help more people. So I thought about it. After they spoke to me, that very night, we left. When I arrived to meet them that day, they politicized me. They told me that even if I was still young, I could be a big help. My mother wouldn’t agree to let me go with them.

When I first joined I felt no fear and I asked so many questions, like what was the life of the masses, why is there war. I asked them what we do with the masses. They said that we should help the masses and make them understand our principles. We had education meetings. At first there were 30 in our group. We were reduced to five people. The others formed other groups. We had to undergo education first. That’s how it is in the movement, study first. They did not give me any task yet until I had undergone some studies. Only then did they give me some tasks.

You must shed your bourgeois ways that still come from outside the movement. For example, you were a teacher and you still carry on some of the privileged attitude, like asking people to bring you food. You must change that. If you want to join the movement you must change your ways. You must be advanced in your character because you are given tasks. You educate the new recruits; you have to be calm in the face of many things. You have to make people understand many things. That’s what I learned in the movement. And if you have proven yourself as advanced, you are given many tasks.

In fact, they did not want to release me because they said I am a big help in educating the masses. But I really tried hard to study. When I tried so hard to absorb the lessons, I felt like I’m going out of my mind. I had to understand immediately. Because in the movement, you really have to be quick in understanding, cannot afford to be slow. In the movement, the schedule is very fast and these lessons will not be repeated anymore. We only had one education session a year. You have to understand at once because the lesson will not be reviewed the following day. Education sessions must be finished fast because we must be quick and vigilant against a lurking enemy. You must absorb the instructions given by the teacher so you can immediately apply these later in your subsequent tasks. For we have a rule in the movement: when the commander says that you have to be deployed in a new area, you have to go. In the movement, you must obey the command of whoever is above you.

We attacked enemy detachments. We first underwent training. Only for a day. We were 2000, we were many. You have to be swift, very swift. We were trained and taught how to move quickly. There are instructions to follow. You are really being taught. We were taught how to run with a full pack and M16 rifle. We wore colored clothes so as not to be seen. There were supplies, sometimes none, yet we cannot ask for food; the masses must give food voluntarily. We cannot force them to give us food. The masses were not even informed that it’s prohibited. We had our hammock, complete with covering, the works. Heavy. We wore shoes or boots that we get from the cleaning, confiscated things from the enemy. When they get killed, we get their things.

I experienced so many problems. Regarding food, because there were times when we had no food to eat. During military operations, sometimes for a week, there were times when we could not eat at all. Cooking rice was not allowed to avoid producing smoke. Usually, we would be able to eat only during nighttime. But the next day, you cannot be choosy with food. You have to fill your lunchbox with whatever leftover food is available.

As for long walks, it’s really very tiring to walk under the heat, in the dark night, or through the rain. You’ll really feel some crisis inside. Once, I wept when I fell off a cliff because I was so sleepy but still had to go on walking. It’s not a life with few problems. But the worst is when you are sick and there are enemy troops around. It’s likely that your condition will worsen into a very severe disease. That’s the life in the group. Perhaps the hardest for me was about getting sick. Sometimes I get sick for a week. That’s my most difficult crisis. I can go on without food but I really cannot bear getting sick. What I really want to avoid is the situation where I’m so sick, of course I’m not a civilian but in the group, but still had to walk far and fast but what if I cannot do it, what are they going to do with me? When we start walking, we really walk fast!

I experienced gunfire only once. There was one incident where we were supposed to be the one to conduct a raid, but instead we were the ones who were almost caught by enemy troops. They came right after we left the area. We had just left when the enemies arrived. I fired my rifle but I had not killed anyone yet. I’m even afraid of looking at the dead, how much more in killing someone? I saw a comrade dying, but I never had the chance of killing anyone. Sometimes I wondered whether my bullet really shot somebody or not. When the shots are fired, you get the hang of it and killing people seems exciting. You become hotheaded. It’s not just in a situation of battle. Even during military trainings, they also fire guns at us to train us with the idea that there’s an enemy. Comrades are worse because they spray bullets on you, sometimes even using an M16. It’s a good thing no one was injured by gunfire because we really crawled so hard. You just have to make your body move in whatever way and get used to it. Sometimes you have to race to a hilltop to train yourself to be faster than enemy troops.

Now I’m not with my mother anymore, I feel guilty and think that what I did was wrong. For example, while I was inside the movement, my mother was having a hard time. My cousin sent me a letter requesting me to come home because my younger sibling is sick. Or if I asked them if they can give some help, they would say, “what about?” “My father needs money.” They would always say: “don’t worry because we will write down your request. But we need to find some money first.” I told them: “that might be too late. My father’s life is more important to me than money.” I said maybe it would be better for me to go home first so that I’d be there whatever happens to my father. They tried to stop me by saying it’s not my father who will die but rather it’s me who might be killed by the military. The highest problem, they said, is capitalism. They said that if I get caught I will surely be killed. I really felt so bad that I cried. I was in such a miserable situation, I just thought of walking out of there because I wanted so much to see my mother, my siblings and my father. The comrades refused my request to go home. They really prevented me from going and suggested that my mother come to me instead. I felt so bad and sorry for my life. I could not stop wondering about my father. I thought that if something happened to my father, I would really blame the comrades.

What I know in the movement is that they are not accepting minors. But at that time, there were many minors who joined the armed struggle…they said even if I had killed someone, I would not be penalized because I’m still a minor. I tend to believe that’s true. They also said that the leadership of the armed group receives money. There is a leader who receives all the money while we in the Philippines do not receive a single centavo. According to the soldiers, we are only being used. That is true anyway. And then we who stayed here in the Philippines, they said we are pitiful, because he continuously receives money while we do not receive even a peso.

In the armed group I know that we have some right to say what we want to say. But I think there were also those who were deceived. Because in the movement, you just can’t question things. That’s a no-no. That’s why whatever the soldiers said, I just kept quiet. I really don’t know. We are afraid that we would be victimized, that’s what we are afraid of. They said that those who discuss things like that were considered as enemies. For example, if I was given a task to get rice and I questioned it, they would question my being critical. Because you cannot really be disobedient, you have to follow their word.

I want to go home, not to join the movement again, but to just engage in some livelihood to help my mother. I would say to the staff in the Center that I just want to go home because I can’t take it any longer; I don’t know what’s going to happen here. I really can’t bear going back to the movement. I think it’s best for me to go home to give me the chance to think of what I should do, rather than stay here and remain uncertain about my life. The best is to go home. I have this feeling that I’d be able to forget about the movement. I cannot deny that I’m still interested in the movement, but some of the things I believed in have been disproved by my own experience.

I already decided that I would I help my family. My mother used to wonder what would happen if I leave them. She would say: “Where are you my child, what will happen to us if you leave us?” I told her that I would not leave them, that I would just be around to help them. For me, if I can return home, I can go to school. My big problem is my mother, because she is quite old already and has no clear livelihood. I really want help, if there’s anybody to help me continue schooling. How can I continue school when I’m torn between going to school and helping my mother? My mother is more important to me. In my mind, I imagine many untoward things that might happen. I really want to rest and to be with my mother.

I suppose, what happened to me, regarding my experiences, there are some things I regret and lament. I feel so sorry. I have gone through such grave experiences. Imagine the stories I’ll tell my children. I just want to forget everything because I really feel like dying inside when I remember my experiences in the movement. So when I just don’t want to remember the experiences, I take a breather and go outside. I just want to forget...or else I’d go crazy. A soldier told me that in the movement I would just die without a future. They made me understand that I am still so young. That’s really true. We’re still so young to be in this struggle and we end up not being able to follow the laws outside the movement. I just want to laugh. I am always crying because of my problem.

Narrative as told to the Quaker United Nations Office, 2001.