Deep inside a Moro Islamic Liberation Front jungle encampment in the southern Philippines, veteran fighter Abdul Campong leads a patrol against possible attacks by saboteurs opposed to a peace deal that his group signed with Manila four years ago.
Campong joined the MILF rebels when he was 14 years old, one of many child fighters who left their homes at the time to enlist in the battle for a Muslim homeland in the majority Catholic country’s southern third.
Recalling his early years as a guerrilla, Campong said he was hand-picked to lead a group of young fighters in protecting the camp that housed Hashim Salamat, the ailing MILF leader who died of natural causes in 2003.
“I am thankful I survived despite several encounters I experienced against government soldiers,” Campong recently told BenarNews. “I was mostly a medic tending to injured fighters during the battles.”
The phenomenon of “child soldiers” remains rampant in the south, where many armed groups use them, said Col. Gerry Besana, a spokesman for the Philippine military’s Western Mindanao Command.
It has become easy for groups to recruit children from remote areas where poverty persists and they have access to loose firearms, he said.
“Except for the MILF, there are still many child soldiers under Abu Sayyaf and BIFF [the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters] in Mindanao. However, with the implementation of Bangsamoro Organic Law, we are confident it will be lessened,” Besana said.
“There are programs that will address the cases of child soldiers among these groups,” he said.
Now in his late 30s and working on the security detail of another commander, Campong is frequently deployed in Camp Darapanan, MILF’s main headquarters in Maguindanao province that has been converted into a peace zone.
He no longer plans assaults against government soldiers, but joins them in hunting down radical fighters who broke away from MILF in protest of a 2014 peace accord with the Philippine government. Some of those militants allied with the extremist group known as Islamic State (IS).
“Many of us joined the organization when were still young. My vision before was to take revenge over the deaths of family members. But now I am looking forward to the law that will change the lives of my three children and their generation,” he said.
Under the Bangsamoro Organic Law, 4 million Muslim Filipinos would be allowed to form an elected parliament and administration in Islamic-majority areas of southern Mindanao Island and nearby isles, where five decades of insurgencies have left more than 100,000 people dead.
Campong’s tale is not unique. Many children are drawn into joining militant groups in the region, Ramon Beleno III, a political scientist at Ateneo de Davao University, told BenarNews.
Theology, he said, was among the factors that drove children to join the armed movements – they were taught that fighting in a holy war (jihad) was the way to religious salvation.
“At the same time, it also has something to do with social injustice,” Beleno said. “In other cases, it involves historical issues, like if they lost their loved ones in the war. They want revenge”
MILF agreed to end the practice of recruiting children to its ranks when it signed the peace deal, he noted.
Last year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) removed MILF from its list of armed groups recruiting and using children, after it facilitated a U.N.-MILF Action Plan involving training programs and integration into communities.
The plan resulted in the removal of 1,869 children from the MILF ranks, allowing them access to appropriate health, education and protection support and services from government and development partners.
Recruiting goes on
Last year, Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader and the acknowledged head of IS in the Philippines, led fighters including teenagers in taking over the southern city of Marawi. The five-month siege ended in October 2017 with the deaths of Hapilon and key militants from Asia and the Middle East.
The Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, has been engaged in banditry, kidnapping and bombings.
While the military has estimated its ranks to number in the low hundreds, it is known to recruit young Muslims by offering them an escape from grinding poverty. It is a tradition in Muslim areas in the south that when a boy reaches the age of 13, he is considered an adult, officials and analysts have said.
A 2005 study by the Philippine Human Rights Center said that more than three-quarters of children drawn into conflict were actual combatants, while the rest were enrolled in support roles.
The study has not been updated, but Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana acknowledged last year that many militant factions had prolonged the practice of recruiting children to carry out their war.
Abu Sayyaf as well as the IS-linked Maute group, which fought in Marawi, had child soldiers in their ranks, Lorenzana said.
“In fact, those who are beheading their victims are just teenagers,” Lorenzana has said.
In July, his department facilitated the surrender of more than 100 Muslim rebels, many of them younger than 18.
Earlier this month, Malaysia’s police chief reported that officers had arrested eight suspects, including a man who allegedly recruited children in the Philippines to join Abu Sayyaf.
Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun said the 35-year-old Filipino suspect, whom he did not name, helped find children and train them to use weapons before turning them into human shields in Abu Sayyaf battles with the Philippine Army.
Philippine officials could not be reached to confirm Fuzi’s allegations.