Helping killers choose life

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



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: Senior Commodities Brokers / Sales / Closers / Telesales

£10000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Investment consultancy firm sp...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is recr...

Langley James : IT Support, Bradford £16k - £22k

£16000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Langley James : IT Support, Bradford £16...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager / Invoice Finance £75k OTE

£40000 - £50000 per annum + £75,000 OTE Car+Mobile : h2 Recruit Ltd: Business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

You wouldn't give your child untested medicine, so why would you give them an untested education?

Oliver Wright
Tony Blair and George Bush were united over Iraq  

America and Britain shaped the world after World War II, and ought to be proud of their work

John Rentoul
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital