'The boy whose suffering I'll never forget'

Child soldiers are across Africa are separated from their families, but I've seen how Unicef can reunite them

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The Independent Online


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Lean, poised and shy, the boys sat with us on a woven plastic mat in the shade of a tree. Although still only children, I sensed an age in their faces - a bruised, wounded look. Their eyes met mine and then slid away.

We were at a rehabilitation centre for child soldiers supported by Unicef in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, one of the least-developed countries in Africa. Shortly before my visit there had been fighting near the border with Darfur, and during this battle some child soldiers had been captured by government forces. Unicef was in talks with the Chadian government to discuss their liberation and rehabilitation.

Speaking through a translator, the boys at the centre told us of the skills they were learning in order to be reintegrated into a 'normal' world, including tailoring, leatherwork, hair cutting, carpentry, mechanical skills and cooking. I was told of one child who, after his release, opened his own restaurant in a refugee camp.

As they spoke I could only imagine what these boys had been through. I remembered images from a medical book of war injuries, horrific pictures of what shrapnel, bombs and bullets do. They must have seen that. Perpetrated that. What had it done to them? There must have been severe psychological wounds, too - many of them had been coerced to join the fighting or seen their families murdered.

It would be too easy to lose hope in the face of such inhumanity. But in my mind I hold on to one particular event which I witnessed during my trip, which symbolises how these young lives can still be turned around.

A few days after visiting the rehabilitation centre, we flew for two hours to a remote part of the country where tens of thousands of families, forced from their homes by conflict, were living in sprawling makeshift camps.

We were taken to meet the mother of a boy soldier in one of the rehabilitation centres in N'Djamena. Her name was Fatiha. She sat with her family - proud and vulnerable at the same time. She told us her son was captured by rebels when her village was attacked and was forcibly recruited. His name was Ibrahim.

Was he one of the boys I had met? A process of verification took place. It was explained to us that the due diligence involved in reuniting a family is lengthy - it can't just happen. There would be questions around Ibrahim's state of mind; what would he do if he returned to his family? Would he find a vocation?

I asked Fatiha if I could take her picture. Shyly, she agreed, if we showed it to her son if we should meet him. I took a photograph of each family member.

Back in N'Djamena, I told my Unicef colleague of my meeting with Fatiha. In a flash he was on the phone giving the names of Fatiha and Ibrahim to the child protection team, in the hope that we would find him.

We didn't have to wait long to hear that Ibrahim had been identified at the rehabilitation centre, and that Fatiha had been confirmed as his mother. My mind reeled.

We drove straight over to the centre, and Ibrahim was brought to meet us. I didn't remember him from my visit the previous Monday, but could see a similarity to his mother.

I showed him the pictures of his family on the small screen of my camera. He was very affected. He hadn't seen his family for three years. Ibrahim wanted to know all about them. Were they all right? What did his mother say? I could sense huge emotions moving through the grave expression on his face. Not wanting good intentions to feel like an intrusion, after a few minutes we said goodbye. We could do no more, but Unicef would carry on the work of reuniting these boys with their families wherever possible.

All this happened in 2009. Three years later memories of Ibrahim and his mother remain fixed in my mind, along with all the other children I met whose childhoods had been ripped apart by conflict. I witnessed what Unicef and its partners were doing to repair this damage. This is why I believe the Independent's Christmas Appeal for Child Soldiers is so vital, and I urge everyone to support it in any way they can.

All Unicef's work with child soldiers in the CAR is funded by donations. Please be as generous as you can. Click here to donate. Text CHILD to 70030 to donate five pounds.

• £6 provides life-saving treatment for one child from fatal diarrhoea, pneumonia, or malaria, all diseases that the children are vulnerable to in the Central African Republic

• £15 pays for schooling for a child who has been rescued from an armed group – including providing all the books and stationary they need.

• £25 provides a child with all the essentials they need when they are first rescued. This ‘welcome kit’ includes clothes, underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, a blanket, mattress, and mosquito net.

• £62 provides vocational training to a child released from armed groups, providing them with a sustainable future

• £103 trains a teacher to help former child soldiers continue their education

• £150 pays for psychological support for one child who has been rescued

• £300 can buy enough toys for a centre for 50 rescued children to play with, to help them regain their childhood by having fun again

• £516 can support one child for a whole month. This covers the cost of everything they need at the rehabilitation centre, including care from dedicated and experienced staff, food, counselling, education, vocational training, and the costs for family reunification