Back to RJ Archive

When child soldiers reconcile: Accountability, restorative justice, and the renewal of empathy.

Harris, David Alan
June 4, 2015

Source: (2010) Journal of Human Rights Practice. 2(3):334-354.

The international consensus that child soldiering must end does not extend to agreement over best practices for helping demobilized children to reconcile with their communities and integrate meaningfully into them. Based on experience in an unusually successful non-governmental organization (NGO) program that the author designed for a group of a dozen former boy combatants in post-conflict Sierra Leone, he advocates that humanitarian agencies address two paradoxical needs among such children: acceptance and accountability. Many organizations serving children affiliated with fighting forces, however, limit themselves to community-building and skills training, while avoiding questions of personal well-being. By ignoring children’s submerged guilt and shame, such programming potentially imperils both the children themselves and those around them, since these feelings may erupt in unfettered fury directed either internally or externally. Dictating to ex-fighters that they are not at fault for their actions may seriously exacerbate the situation.

A case study of the author’s dance/movement therapy group with ex-combatant teenagers illustrates a methodology – based in kinesthetic empathy – for fostering a sense of collective agency and self-worth, and a restored capacity for positive interaction. Through improvisational dancing and dramatizations of their time with the rebel army, the 12 youths dispelled long suppressed rage and practiced reconnecting with others. Given the liberty within a safe space to acknowledge their experiences, and mourn their suffering and that of those whom they had caused to suffer, the former boy soldiers discovered a route to reconciliation with a community that had shunned them for years. The youths’ earnest public dramatization of their wartime history prompted local elders to welcome them to assume productive adult roles in the devastated area’s development.


Support the cause

We've Been Restoring Justice for More Than 40 Years

Your donation helps Prison Fellowship International repair the harm caused by crime by emphasizing accountability, forgiveness, and making amends for prisoners and those affected by their actions. When victims, offenders, and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results are transformational.

Donate Now