Project AK47, and child soldiers

November 4, 2010

Project AK47 is an organization working globally to rehabilitate child soldiers.

Their media director, Jeremy Anderson, was kind enough to give me an interview after I returned from Uganda.

I hope you're as fascinated - and moved, as I was. See my interview with a Ugandan who ran from Child Soldiers here. 

What has been the greatest challenge in working with child soldiers?

Working in war zones is a challenge in itself with all its logistical and security issues!  However our greatest challenge has been having the opportunity/invitation to rescue hundreds more children but not having the funding to do so.

Story that has impacted you the most?

As it relates to our children's stories, most of the stories I hear have similar details and are all equally heartrending.  However, it was what I saw first-hand when I had a surprise encounter with some active duty child soldiers in Burma that impacted me the most.  We were on our way to our children's home in Northern Burma (which was a covert trip because that area is off limits to foreigners).  My boss, our Founder who speaks fluently in the local tribal dialect, was extremely careful not to speak in that dialect until we reached our homes.  He didn't want to raise any red flags (as if 6 Westerners travelling in a restricted access area in a Chinese tourism van were not enough).  So, when we were almost approaching the village where our homes are, it took us by surprise when a local drug lord (armed, mind you) stopped our vehicle.  He asked our driver, "Who's the white man who speaks our dialect?"  My boss then began conversing with him, and within a minute or so, he invited us up to his palatial estate as his guests.  

It was a surreal experience on all accounts: hanging out with a wealthy drug lord in an extremely impoverished area, meeting his family and body guards, touring his opulent estate (complete with palm tree-lined walkway on the sides of his swimming pool), but what came next was when reality hit.  One of our team members let it slip that we work with children in the area, to which he exclaimed, "So do I!  Come see my young solider project."  We piled into his brand-new Lexus SUVs and he and his wife drove us through the village.  An ox cart was blocking the road, but when the villagers saw whom it was blocking, they immediately hurried out of the way in respect and fear.  When we reached the child soldier barracks, which were made of tattered bamboo and had trash strewn everywhere, our host barked at the children to come line up for us.  

He was very proud of the fact that he had taken these orphans and done something honorable with them.  As his face beamed with pride, we did our best not to appear aghast at the truly pathetic sight in front of us.  These children--just as many girls as boys--were wearing clothes that weren't even gender appropriate and hadn't been washed in what appeared to have been years.  Many of their faces were scratched and had snot all over them.  But that wasn't what truly got to me:  I had been in several severely impoverished areas before, but I had never witnessed the absolute absence of hope and loss of innocence that I saw in many of their eyes.  It was the cruelest mixture of pain, anger, dejection and violence.  I don't know what I expected to see in the eyes of active duty child soldiers, but it caught me off guard and deeply disturbed me.  We are hoping to return to these same children, but as I mentioned, we already have more invitations to start new rescues than we have finances to be able to respond to them.  Nonetheless, this experience made my somewhat theoretical understanding of child soldiers much more concrete and put a new fire in me to rescue them.

Where is the problem of child soldiers the most intense, and what is being done there?

In terms of intensity (i.e., graphic nature of the problem), places like Afghanistan where children are trained as suicide bombers and countries within the LRA's reign of terror where children have to murder their parents would be at the top of my list.  I don't know of anyone working to prevent this in Afghanistan, but there are several organizations working to address the LRA's use of child soldiers.  However, in terms of where the problem is greatest, it is Burma hands down.  Official, overly conservative estimates say there are 300,000 child soldiers in the world.  If that's true, that means that over 25% to 33% of the world's child soldiers are in Burma alone (75,000-100,000).  Ironically, we have not been able to find any other organizations working to demobilize child soldiers in Burma...we are hard pressed even to find organizations doing aftercare because of how volatile the country is.  We are hoping to work in Afghanistan in the near future as well, but we are already well established in Burma.  

What is AK47's strategy of rehabilitation/helping - how does the typical process of moving a child into a better place work? 

I wish I had an impressive answer and methodology for you.  In our experience, simply removing the children from their former lives as soldiers and providing them with a stable, loving environment and education works wonders.  Our teachers and house parents are tribal people who are not skilled in things like counseling, plus we've found that the western model of having the children relive their experiences in a "therapeutic" environment isn't particularly helpful.  So, we educate the houseparents and staff and get them as emotionally healthy as possible through counseling so it can trickle down to the children.  It is a slow process, but we have these children until they graduate school and are ready to move on as adults. 

Where do you find the children that you end up working with?

It's different in each country.  In Burma, we have a working relationship with the largest drug cartel army in the world.  When we open schools or children's homes, they will voluntarily allow us to demobilize children.  In Sri Lanka, we are working with former child soldiers that have come to us for help.  In Philippines, we have a relationship with the commander of what is technically a terrorist military in Midinao province...he is also allowing us to take child soldiers from his battalion in order to educate them.  In Mexico, we work with children who are in very high risk of being drawn into the cartel gangs (usually because of family history and poverty, as well as the presence of the cartels in their areas). 

Is most your work with individuals, on the ground, or with legislation, advocacy, etc. from a distance? 

All of the above except legislation...we haven't touched that one yet.

What are some of the psychological issues you run into with these types of children? 

Obviously, PTSD, but some have severe difficulty integrating with other children and adults for a while. 

Have you ever had a child that became part of your work turn on you, and go back to being a soldier? 

Yes, one boy was a handful: he was very charismatic and convinced some of the younger children to follow him into the jungle to start their own little commune apart from our home.  It was serious at the time, and we had to find an alternate living situation for him, but when we look back on it, it makes us laugh because of how much it resembles Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.  We did have some children get reconscripted our blog on "Neso's Escape." 

Most gruesome/hard experience someone in your organization has had in doing this kind of work? 

Our Asian director has had to live through being thrown into a slave labor camp, but he has also had to turn away children who have come to us in droves because we simply couldn't take any more in.  Our Latin America director has had more gruesome experiences than I care to share, but one such experience was having to bury a baby who was murdered by her mother while she was high because she hallucinated and believed the baby was a witch.  I can't bring myself to tell you how she killed the baby.

About how many people are you working with overseas - do you target communities, families, individuals? 

We are reaching about 500 kids.  We focus on community and individual levels. 

 Why have you chosen the countries that you have chosen?  

Long story to go into all of it, but mainly because we are drawn to areas where it seems most hopeless and where no one else is really doing much to address the problem of children in armed conflict.  History in the area and open opportunities are other big factors.

 Approx how many people do you have working in the organization, and how many are working from the states, versus working overseas? 

In the U.S. our staff is 8 people (only 3 of which are full-time, myself included).

What does your overhead look like - how much funding is diverted to running the organization, rather than going directly to the children, and how do you justify the spending that doesn't go directly to the field as still useful/necessary to the cause?

We run very lean, trust me.  In the past, before we broke Project: AK-47 off to be its own organization, about 85% was going to our projects.  As we are in our first financial calendar year as the new 501c3, our financials reflect quite a few more start-up costs than they will in future years. 
What are your plans for expanding in the future?  

We keep expanding our projects in Burma as we are able, but our primary focal points for expansion currently are Mexico and Philippines.  Like I mentioned, we hope to move to new areas such as Jordan and Afghanistan soon, but please don't publish that.

How can people help?  

We really need people to get the word out there and involve people in our giving campaign (starts at $7 a month).  The bottom line really is the bottom line: more dollars equals more rescues.  People can get creative about how they leverage their influence, rather than just donating by themselves.

Find out more about AK47 here.

(art via AK47)