Don's Diary

July 27, 2001

I would not advise flying Meridiana airlines unless you are a die-hard fan of Italian airports at night. Our flight scheduled to land in Florence decides to fly to Pisa, then Bologna, before landing at our surprise destination, Genoa, at one in the morning.

The airport is empty and dark as we climb wearily into a coach bound for Florence. We endure a frightening, rollercoaster journey, finally pulling into a deserted Florence airport with only one taxi.

Blara Otunnu, a Ugandan, is the new United Nations special representative whose job it is to try to prevent the use of children as soldiers and to alleviate the plight of child civilians.

Otunnu is trying to enlist the support of universities. We have come to Florence, a city which feels miles away from such violence, to try to establish a global research network on the impact of armed conflict on children.

The first challenge is definition. What is a child soldier? One community worker in a Brazilian favella (shanty town) told how l6,000 people in one favella stayed inside their shacks for 24 hours on the orders of a l7-year-old drug trafficker.

He was the leader of a gang of armed traffickers who wanted to show his power to the police and protest against the shooting of one of his teenage colleagues by the police. Was this any different from soldiers imposing a curfew?

The Research Network's aim is to fill the gaps in knowledge and provide comparative information on conflict prevention and the recovery and rehabilitation of child soldiers.

Although most children killed and injured through war are civilians, international focus has been principally on child soldiers. (This might be explained by a gender bias in the research - most child soldiers are male).

We also want to make it easier to speak out. The International War Crimes Tribunal has declared rape a crime against humanity. There are many girls who have been abducted by armed forces and forced into marriage. Even after demobilisation the aid agencies are unable to gain access to these children. In Sierra Leone it is also suspected that rape against boys has been a deliberate tool of war, but the sense of shame forces silence.

It is early evening and we are taken on a guided tour of the Uffizi. This comes as welcome light relief. The Raphaels are exquisite. I am, however, astonished to see a rhinoceros in a 15th-century Italian painting.

The Research Network seeks international equality, but this demands that basic concepts must be understood. States are legally bound to provide recovery and reintegration services, but the approach by many medical and psycho-logical professions has been clinical and typically western. This is highlighted by a doctor from the Philippines who asks why traditional methods of healing such as meditation have not been properly researched.

Lunch is served in the basement of the Institutio degli Innocenti, surrounded by Brunelleschi's glorious frescos. It is a fitting setting, particularly as the building was originally a foundlings' hospital.

Geraldine van Bueren is professor of international human rights law, Queen Mary College, University of London.

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