Child-Soldiers in Focus at Symposium

U.N. Meeting Looks to Help a Special Class of War Casualties

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NEW YORK, JUNE 7, 2001 (Zenit.org).- María Pérez of Colombia knows firsthand the horrors of being a child-soldier.

«They forced us to walk day and night, to sleep in the cold, to fight, take drugs, and have sex with the highest-ranking soldiers and, if we became pregnant, to abort,» Pérez, 16, told the participants at the symposium «Children in Armed Conflict: Everyone´s Responsibility,» organized by the Vatican mission at the United Nations.

On Sunday, John Paul II appealed «to the international community to increase its efforts to protect and rehabilitate all those [children] who live in such tragic conditions.» On Tuesday, he sent a message to the symposium, addressed to Olara Otunnu, undersecretary-general for Children in Armed Conflict, who sponsored the initiative.

The Pope affirmed that «the memory of those who have been killed, and the continued tribulations of so many others, oblige us to spare no efforts and to do everything possible to help these young victims return to a healthy and worthy life.»

The challenge, the Pontiff explained in his message, is to ensure that the children will have the chance to grow up in peace and happiness, and build a world of fraternity and solidarity.

U.N. French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte, citing UNICEF data, and said that 2 million children have been killed and 6 million wounded in wars between 1986 and 1996.

Archbishop Renato Martino, Vatican permanent observer at the United Nations, the organizer of the symposium, mentioned the commitment of so many religious to help these young victims. In Sierra Leone, for instance, the Church has «bought» hundreds of child-soldiers and assumed the responsibility to educate and integrate them, he said.

Olara Otunnu listed points that should be included in the agenda of the September special session of the U.N. General Assembly, which will focus on the problem of child-soldiers. Among the points:

–it is necessary «to involve all religious leaders so that they will become bearers of messages of peace, not of division.»

–there must be an end to war and to the destruction of natural resources that are indispensable for development.

–health and education must be promoted, and governments pressured to ratify the agreement that prohibits the use of children under age 18 in conflicts.

–an alliance of states, nongovernmental groups and civil organizations must be created to address children´s problems jointly.

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