Sixteen-year-old Ahmed could be any teenager, anywhere in the world. But, with his hands firmly in his pockets, the hood on his sweatshirt up, and the monosyllabic speech typical of youth everywhere, Ahmed (who refused to give his last name) leads a different life to most teenagers. Already considered a man in his native Lebanon, Ahmed is at work, standing guard on the sidelines of a fortnight-old sit-in in downtown Beirut.
Watching over the protest, calling for a new national unity government, Ahmed wears a badge denoting his membership of Hezbollah [the Shia-backed political party].
He described his role: "There are those who intervene if there are problems. I just keep constant watch. I come here every day after I finish school. I feel good doing this, it makes me proud. I would do anything for Hezbollah and the resistance."
Youth and war
Ahmed grew up in the overcrowded, under-serviced southern suburbs of Beirut, whose 900,000-strong population is nearly double that of the capital city itself. During the summer war between Israel and the armed wing of Hezbollah, the southern suburbs were heavily bombed in near-daily aerial raids. ”Our house was completely destroyed,” he said.
Though Lebanon is no stranger to conflict and violence, in recent years war has been focused in the south, the Beqaa valley, and the southern suburbs of Beirut, and it is there where Hezbollah's majority Shia power base is concentrated.
“The effects of the Israeli occupation and aggression draw many young people, especially males, to the idea of resistance, for which Hezbollah provides a tried and tested framework,” said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, lecturer at the Lebanese American University. "Under attack and insecure, young people in these areas grew up feeling protected by, and proud of, Hezbollah."
A political party with strong social network support systems, including schools and hospitals, Hezbollah also has an armed wing which many young men hope to join.
According to analysts, the summer 2006 war only served to swell youth support for the party, listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organisation.
"Most children and youth living in areas affected by the war know someone, a relative or a neighbour, who died in the summer war," said Sami Hermez, lecturer in the anthropology of violence at the American University of Beirut.
According to the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, a third of the 1,400 people killed in the 34-day war were children. The conflict also caused significant damage to infrastructure, particularly in the southern suburbs of the capital, and along the Lebanese border with Israel. The Lebanese government’s Higher Relief Council estimated that 30,000 homes were either destroyed or damaged by the war.
Alternative framework for youth
With a heavily community-based approach ever since the mid-1980s, Hezbollah has included children and youth in various programmes across the areas where its support base is widest. Activities range from art and sport, to military training for older teenagers.
An estimated 40,000 boys and girls from 14-years and up are members of the Hezbollah Mahdi Scouts organisation. Membership is strongest in villages where Hezbollah has the greatest presence. Elsewhere, children receive political information from Hezbollah in regular in-school and extracurricular activities.
"As for the scouts, they meet once a week during the school term and more often during holidays, sometimes even travelling to camps in areas elsewhere in the country," said Bilal al-Naaim, deputy head of Hezbollah's Executive Bureau. Claiming that the organisation is similar to other scout groups the world over, al-Naaim added, "Perhaps the difference is that they receive political and religious education."
Forging a war-based identity
From the age of 14, children are subject to a rigorous religious and political programme. "They start learning about the martyrs of the resistance, and about the victories of the past," said al-Naaim.
From the age of 16, they are taught about jihad. Involving youth in military activities is not, in Hezbollah's view, wrong. "In Islam, a 15-year-old is considered a responsible adult," al-Naaim added. "Young men with the right credentials undergo a 33-day training course in the field in fighting and weapons. They then go on to form a part of the resistance’s reserve corps, which is totally distinct from the much smaller corps of professional fighters."
Al-Naaim refused to disclose precisely how many young men have been trained in fighting, saying only that they are in the tens of thousands. He also added that there is no forced conscription, and that the youth then go on to live normal lives. "Until there are more wars, that is," he said.
Saad Ghorayeb, an expert on the organisation, supported his statement on forced conscription. "It would be nonsense to think that they would forcibly conscript fighters when they spend so much money on educational and other social programmes," she said.
It appears that there would be no need for conscription. "A human being has to adjust in order to survive, and these youth live in a merciless environment," said Youssef Al-Barodi, UNICEF child protection officer. "We must understand that youth in the south, the Beqaa and the southern suburbs are neither fascinated with death or martyrdom, but if death is imposed on them, of course they will react by re-appropriating that death in order to sustain their morale and sense of self in the face of adversity."
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]