Child Soldiers in Africa

25 February, 2013

Hello, I’m Steve Ember.

Today we take you to Africa. First stop – Sierra Leone, where the Child Soldiers Initiative is working to prevent children from being forced into armed military service.

Next, to South Africa, where theft of power cables is causing major problems. And finally, in Uganda, we meet an ambitious volunteer team who are building a space probe.

The use of children as soldiers is a worldwide problem. To help prevent children from being used in wars, Romeo Dallaire started the Child Soldiers Initiative in 2008. Mr. Dallaire is a retired Canadian lieutenant general and former force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Jim Tedder has more.

In Sierra Leone, the rebels continually used children for fighting and other work during the civil war. Child Soldiers Initiative estimates that ten thousand children served as soldiers in Sierra Leone. The organization just recently started a new program in the country.

Shelly Whitman is its executive director. She says the group will create training and education programs to prevent the future use of child soldiers. The Initiative plans to work with the military and police in Sierra Leone as well as young people.

She said one way to help is suggesting to children how to prevent themselves being forced into armed service should wars begin.  And she said they also will be given ideas about how to escape if they are taken.

Miz Whitman says the organization has trained troops around the world how to deal with child soldiers. But, she says this will be the first time working with a country for a nationwide project.

"What if we could look at this as creating a model for how the rest of world might be able to prevent the use of children in armed conflict, and take it and mold it so that it could be used in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, or other contacts around the world?"

Kalia Sesay is the officer for police peacekeeping operations in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown. He says many former child soldiers have slowly rejoined with communities. But Mister Sesay says some former child soldiers have gone on to live a life of crime and illegal drugs.

"There might be one or two bad eggs that still need some rehabilitation and it is a police concern which we need to work on. Child Soldiers Initiative hopes to have the program in Sierra Leone completely operating this June. I’m Jim Tedder.

You are listening to “AS IT IS” in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.

South African investigators say cable theft was to blame for a train accident near Pretoria in January. About 200 people were hurt when the train derailed. About 50 meters of electrical cable was stolen, causing the railroad’s signal system to stop working.

Officials estimate that cable theft costs the South African economy more than 500 million dollars every year. Each electrical, telecommunications, or transportation-related cable stolen can affect economic activity in a large area. June Simms has our report.

Eunice Sethabakgomo’s neighborhood could be a perfect advertisement for government efforts to help the poor since the end of white minority rule. Little, nice-looking brick houses line the streets in this modern looking village outside Johannesburg. Everything works well here --everything except the street lights. Eunice Sethabakgomo says the lighting has not worked since the electrical cables were stolen in 2010. She says crime is a problem, especially after sunset.

A short distance away, it is a different world, but with the same problem. Trevor D’ Oliveira owns !vianto, a business that specializes in wedding ceremonies for upper class people. At all times, a camera is aimed at the electricity box that serves the area as part of efforts to prevent cable theft.

Mr. D’ Oliveira says cable wiring for the camera has been stolen three times in the past seven years.

“Then it takes a day or two to be repaired, and all that time it’s being repaired, our generator runs.”

He says he spends about $340 dollars a day for fuel to power the generating equipment.

The loss of electrical cable is a big problem in South Africa.

Most affected are the big agencies that provide the basis of the country’s economy. They include the telecommunications agency Telkom, the transport agency Transnet and the electric company Eskom.

A top official at Eskom estimates that cable theft costs his company 45 million dollars a year. And that does not include the damage to its image.

Five years ago, the city of Cape Town created a group called the Copperheads to fight the theft of metal cables. The group’s spokesperson says they arrest, on average, 130 to 140 people each year.

I’m June Simms.

You are listening to AS IT IS in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.

The African Space Research Program in Uganda has announced that it is ready to launch its first probe into space. Hundreds of engineering students are helping with the program.

The small probe, or “observer”, was developed by Chris Nsamba and a team of student volunteers working in his back yard. Chris Nsamba is with the African Space Research Program. !ll of the organization’s money comes from private donations. Even without the government’s support, Mr. Nsamba says the observer is fully tested and ready to go.

“It’s done. We have already controlled it via GPS (global positioning system). We have already tested it, and it’s working fine.”

Chris Nsamba and his team demonstrated their creation recently for the Ugandan vice president. They are hoping to get approval soon for a launch and additional money for their program.

The device would be launched using a weather balloon filled with helium gas. The balloon would take it up to more than 40 kilometers before thrusters become active and kick in. 

The observer took about a year to develop, and is equipped with a camera. Chris Nsamba says it should be able to send live data back to Earth. But the observer will be doing more than just observing. It will also be carrying a live rat.

“The reason it has a rat is because we are going to check out our competence of keeping something alive in space.”

He says the only thing missing before the observer can launch is the approval of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.

And that’s our program for today.

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