Christmas is a time of contradictions. On the one hand, we are given licence to overindulgence without guilt in food and alcohol. On the other, it's when we're reminded how fortunate we are to be surrounded by loved ones and (hopefully) presents – and, conversely, how those who lack either are not.
The contradiction can be all the more jarring if, like me, you have just returned to London from one of Africa's most fractured countries. The city's lights are welcome — and the comforts of home even more so. But it is impossible to forget the desperate lives I have seen first-hand.
I was in the Central African Republic (CAR) as a guest of Unicef to see the work they do to free and rehabilitate the country's 2,500 or so child soldiers. Three things most struck me.
The first was the desperation that had led many children to allow the warlords to put a gun in their hands. Again and again I heard how they had seen their closest relatives killed by rival groups, or felt they had no choice as their families had nothing left with which to feed them. It is why Unicef's determination to vocationally train those they manage to free so they can earn their own living is key to the programme's long-term success.
The second was the dedication of the people working for Unicef itself. The rebel warlords who control these children are killers. Rapists, too, with almost two-thirds of women around one base reporting that either they or someone they knew had been sexually assaulted recently. It is these men who Unicef staff, many of them women, must negotiate with. They do so with no protection other than the charity logo on their T-shirts and the sides of their vehicles – bravery humbling to observe.
The third, however, were the children themselves. Not just those I saw in the rebel camp: desperate to get away but prevented from doing so by those who controlled them. Not even the ones whose recent release had been secured: sat taut despite now being in the charity's rehabilitation centre; still looking over their shoulders at the slightest sound.
Rather, it was a group of rehabilitees playing football on a flat patch of dirt outside that same Unicef centre. They could have been kids anywhere as they chased after the ball and leapt in the air in delight as they celebrated a goal. It was a scene that one can see replicated each weekend in parks across the UK. Normality.
That is why I am so delighted i and The Independent's Christmas appeal is to raise much-needed money for Unicef's work with child soldiers in CAR. For what that work is giving those children is a chance at once again having normality after their childhood was stolen from them. And, this Christmas, that would be the best present to them of all.
Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of i, The Independent and the London Evening Standard.