Helping killers choose life

Meet the women working tirelessly to help child soldiers start their lives again

Share

 

Please donate to our appeal for child soldiers here.

This is the story of two child soldiers, and two women who have worked tirelessly on the painful process of trying to help them return to a normal life. One is a success story. The other gives some insight into the depth of inner darkness with which children who fight – and sometimes torture or kill – must wrestle for the rest of their lives. And yet for all that it is a story of hope.

When a child is returned to civilian life they may leave the war behind, but they bring all their woes home. Some exceptional ones such as Vincent make the transition back to normality with apparent ease.

Vincent – which is not his real name – was 13 when he was seized by the most infamous of Africa's armed militias, the Lord's Resistance Army, which marauds across the centre of the continent from South Sudan and Uganda through the Democratic Republic of Congo to, most recently, the Central African Republic (CAR).

He was with the rebels for five years until, injured, they abandoned him and he found his way to Gulu, in northern Uganda, where he met Lotte Vermeij, a Dutch woman who has devoted the past four years to working with child soldiers. “When he came home he had severe post-traumatic stress symptoms,” she recalls. “He had terrible nightmares. Sometimes his eyes would go blank and he could be very violent. At other times he went very quiet, crying all the time.”

He had been forced to take part in many battles. “He had periods of feeling that he was really a member of the militia,” says Ms Vermeij, “but then he would remember his home.” After more than three months in a rehabilitation centre, he was taken back to his village, where he was chosen for a programme in which six returning child soldiers were given strips of land, oxen and the tools needed to start farming.

A similar process of rehabilitation is being undertaken in the CAR by Unicef – which is the focus of The Independent's Christmas Appeal.

(Watch our playlist of videos from the Christmas Appeal here)

“The members of the group started taking care of each other and trusting each other, and understanding that they needed each other,” Ms Vermeij said. “Vincent felt he had a purpose in his life again and his community started accepting him again as one of them.”

But the majority of rescued child soldiers endure far more troubled times. Dr Elisabeth Schauer-Kaiser is international director of Vivo, an alliance of medical professionals which has done research and rehabilitation work with child soldiers. In her experience, the traumas suffered by the majority can leave them damaged for life.

One 16-year-old she met in 2009 had spent three years in a Congo militia called the Mai-Mai. Matthew, as we shall call him, no longer remembered if he was forced to join or did so freely. With the rebels, he was constantly under the influence of drugs.

His commander, in whose magic powers all the children believed, infused them with a sense of righteous purpose: saving their region, the Kivus, from invaders. But those who disobeyed him met hideous fates: Matthew recalled three of his comrades being nailed to trees and tortured with burning plastic. During the night their bodies were devoured by animals.

Eventually, the group was defeated and the children taken to rehabilitation centres. But for Matthew that experience was in some ways worse than being in the militia. He was tormented by terrible nightmares about babies and their crushed skulls. He told Dr Schauer-Kaiser: “My heart is beating strong these days and something in my head is so wrong… Sometimes at night I walk out of the building, especially when I get the dreams, and stare at the sky. When the moon shines bright I can see my life in the bush and how we would always sleep under the stars. And then I get restless. I just wish that my head would get normal again.”

From her organisation's thousands of interviews, Dr Schauer-Kaiser identifies two distinct types of psycho-pathology found in former child soldiers. The first are like Matthew, tormented by nightmares, flashbacks and the all-consuming effort to keep the bad memories at bay, and suffering severe depression. “The suicide rate is very high,” she says, “and that's the biggest problem: they wish they were dead. You are made to commit acts of violence that leave you feeling extremely guilty later. You may also feel guilty simply because you have survived.”

Another group of boys exhibit even more disturbing symptoms. They have learnt to enjoy killing, and get excited and stimulated by carrying out cruel acts; who perpetrate sexual violence, mutilations, torture and massacres.

For this second type, what in the beginning might be a way of adapting to survive among the rebels turns into a lifestyle. Yet in terms of psycho-pathology, this is as disabling for civilian life as an anxiety disorder. Untreated, it can last a lifetime: Dr Schauer-Kaiser recalled meeting victims of the violence in Ceausescu's Romania still suffering in their 80s.

Yet despite that, there is hope. Her group has developed simple therapy programmes which, according to research carried out on 1,113 former child soldiers from Uganda and published by the American Medical Association, have remarkable rates of success.

The technique is called narrative exposure therapy, and involves therapists – who may be local village people and whose only necessary qualification is literacy – sitting down with the former child soldiers and getting them to tell the story of their lives.

“The counsellor puts a rope on the ground,” Dr Schauer-Kaiser says, “and there is a pile of flowers, a pile of stones and some sticks, and as they recall their lives they put a flower for a good memory, a stone for a bad one and a stick for violent acts they have perpetrated.

”Some of the children put stones at the very beginning, because of their bad experiences from babyhood; some put a single flower for the time in the bush when they did not have to kill for one month. It's very good if there are flowers early in life, related to the earliest memories: smells of cooking, the smell of mother, things like that.“

For some rescued child soldiers, six sessions such as this can be enough to transform their prospects. For those who have learnt to enjoy killing, there is a more elaborate programme involving group sessions in which the participants swap roles, undergo psycho diagnostic screening and fill in questionnaires about what they did in combat. ”You go slowly into the past, in absolute detail,“ she says, ”and the story becomes more and more complex.“

Dr Schauer-Kaiser warns that merely liberating child soldiers and reuniting them with their families is not enough. The trauma of war ”indelibly changes an individual on several levels“, she says, leaving them with shattered self-esteem and a belief that the world is basically frightening and evil.

And if trauma this deep-rooted is not tackled clinically, there is a risk that the damaged individuals may wreak havoc later on. What is fortunate for the rescued children is that some understanding is now emerging of how they can be helped to cope.

Unicef's work with child soldiers is funded entirely by donations, please click here to support it. Text CHILD to 70030 to donate five pounds. Click here to bid in our charity auction 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £24,000

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An enthusiastic individual is r...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - West Midlands - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - Yorkshire & Humber - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Embedded Linux Engineer - C / C++

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A well funded smart home compan...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress – arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?