Christmas appeal: Hope in the midst of horror

A small British charity is doing vital work around the world to give young victims of war a better life. Now you can help
Jimmy is seasoned in the use of field radios and AK47s. He has had the letters "RUF" (for the rebel Revolutionary United Front) engraved on his chest with a razor blade. He has killed people twice his age and can talk about it expressionlessly. He may have raped women. But, aged 15, he has paid a terrible price. He has lost his childhood and now his parents do not want him back.

Family fabric is one of the deepest casualties of the war in Sierra Leone. Its breakdown pushes children into begging, crime and prostitution. The Salisbury-based charity Hope and Homes for Children is trying to help.

The conflict over diamonds that has raged in this former British colony in West Africa for the best part of a decade has claimed thousands of lives, created tens of thousands of refugees and left women, men and children with stumps where they used to have hands. Most of the atrocities are perpetuated by the rebel groups, such as the RUF, whose only ideology is greed.

Last week, as United Nations peacekeepers began deploying in an effort to salvage a faltering six-month-old peace deal and ceasefire for the country, rebels were again accused of attacking civilians. The government, which under the deal includes the RUF, is apparently turning a blind eye to the horrors.

Even now, almost every day, more children like Jimmy are abducted and turned into fighters, swapping their families for the dubious solidarity of the jungle warriors. The children's initiation to rebel life is said to be cruel; typically, at gunpoint, they will be made to burn down a hut full of people in their village, or rape their sister, or shoot their parents.

"I would like to go home, to see my brothers and sisters and go to school like other children,'' said Jimmy, who was abducted by the RUF in March 1997 and is now in a children's home near the capital, Freetown. But he is only at the home because in June this year, when he escaped from the rebels and went back to his parents, they threw him out.

"When I turned up at home, my parents said `go'. They said they were scared of me because I was in the RUF. My father said that if he allowed me back into our house, I would kill the whole family."

Jimmy is among 100 child soldiers and sex slaves now relearning childish ways - and some adult vocational skills - at the children's home housed in a former beach hotel near Freetown. Trauma counselling helps prepare them for ordinary life but it is organisations such as Hope and Homes for Children that can actually reintegrate them into society.

Roland Kargbo, a former headmaster who has worked for the charity for four years, said: "We are trying to revive an old African tradition of placing children with families that are able to help them, preferably in their own areas. When the families need a little support, with school fees or uniforms or maybe hospital care, we try to assist so that the placed children do not get neglected."

He hopes, through money raised by Independent on Sunday readers, to make the placements scheme increasingly viable. "In Bo and Kamakwie there is a need to help communities boost their earning power so that placements are seen as a boon. The economy is largely farming-based and if we had agriculture instructors, people would soon benefit," he said.