Jamal's father sips tea at a desk inside a makeshift bunker in Tripoli, Lebanon's notoriously violent Bab el-Tebbeneh neighborhood. Sandbags are piled up against the windows, and bullet holes riddle the walls of surrounding buildings. The bunker is located on the most dangerous street in the area—the border between the Sunni and Alawite sides of town, and a front line of almost-weekly gunfights between their respective residents.
The leader of a local Sunni militia, Jamal's dad is a large, bearlike man with a thick black beard. He's surrounded by fellow militiamen, a couple of whom look as young as 16 or 17. At nine years old, Jamal is by far the youngest person in the room. He's a sweet-faced boy with a shy smile, and at first, he's too bashful to say a word. But with a little prodding from his father, he starts to talk.
"I want to be a fighter like my dad when I grow up," he says proudly. "The Alawite snipers shoot our women and children, so we shoot them. We protect our neighborhood."
Child soldiers have long been a problem in Lebanon. During the civil war that ravaged the country for nearly 15 years, many kids were practically born with machine guns in their hands. Since the war died down, most Lebanese thought those days were over, but the conflict in Syria has caused the security situation in the country to deteriorate, especially in northern cities like Tripoli, and has prompted a new generation of kids to pick up guns. Poor and mostly Sunni, many of them are drawn to the growing Salafist militias that have spread throughout Lebanon over the past few years.
Jamal grabs a cell phone off the desk and opens it to play two videos. The first one is of him holding a PKS machine gun that looks to be at least three times his size. His dad watches him carry it to the corner of the block, where he helps him shoot off a few rounds at the Alawite houses across the street.
The other video shows Jamal scampering around after his dad and the other militiamen, all carrying weapons. Jamal is wearing a Palestinian kiffeyeh. The sound of gunfire echoes from close by.
Jamal returns the cell phone to his father. Asked if he likes school, he nods emphatically. His dad beams when asked if his son gets good grades.
"He's second in his class," he says with some pride. "Just like his dad. I liked going to class, too."
AP Photo/Ben Curtis
Fadi Abi Allam, president of the Permanent Peace Movement, an NGO that works with child soldiers, says that the breakdown in society during war contributes to the creation of child militants. He says that every sect in Lebanon is encouraging the arming of children to some extent. "Child soldiers exist all over the world, in countries where there is war, not against another state, but within the state," he says. "Whenever there are militias, there will be child soldiers. In the beginning, militias rely to a great extent on people who are ignorant enough to enter battle without considering the consequences. It's easy to insert any type of ideology into a child, and they don't cost much money."
Fadi says that the poverty and mentality that come along with sustained conflict contribute greatly to this phenomenon. "From the children's side... they want independence," he says. "They want to be grown-ups, smoke cigarettes, drive cars. They want to carry a gun. Here in Lebanon, carrying a gun is considered heroic... also, some of the families here rely on their children to provide extra money. They're also usually supportive of their kids fighting against other sects. So they don't think what they're doing is wrong... they're actually pushing their children towards 'manhood.'"
At another apartment in Bab el-Tebbeneh, a man we'll call Hamid, a sheikh and leader of a different neighborhood militia, smiles at his own little boy, a two-year-old. Hamid's wife retreated to the kitchen at the sight of strangers in her house, but the little boy stayed, watching our exchange, big-eyed and silent.
Hamid denies that there are many young children who actually fight in these militias but says there are a fair amount of teenagers who do.
"We're talking more about young men who are 15 years old," he says. "Some of them come from poor families, and they don't have a purpose. But after they join us, they become more mature, and they follow Islam the right way. They become disciplined. In Bab el-Tebbeneh, a lot of young men don't have the opportunity to work... so they fall into drugs and other criminal behavior. When they join us, they follow another path."
According to Hamid, the former Syrian occupation of Lebanon, as well as the current conflict in Syria, has affected all the children in his neighborhood, inspiring them to join in the drawn-out fight against the Alawites just a few yards away.
"Almost every household in this neighborhood has lost a martyr in the fight against the Syrian regime and the Alawites in Jabal Mohsen," he says. "So the children grow up with this hate towards them. Every chance they get, they're going to try and get revenge."
But according to Daad Ibrahim, a psychologist who works with child soldiers, the psychological price these kids pay for their revenge is high.
"After the fighting, for many of them, the guilt sets in and they start to think about what they did and blame themselves," she says. "There are cases of suicide, drug addiction, and mental illness."
Ibrahim maintains that religious pressure plays an important role in the militarization of children.
"Religion is another reason child soldiers exist," she says. "The children think doing this will make God happy, because that's what they're told."
At the bunker, Jamal is asked if he ever gets scared when there's fighting. He shakes his head.
His dad laughs.
"He'll grow up to be stronger than me, stronger than all of us," he says with a proud smile.