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Traveling for Unicef as a Goodwill Ambassador for over a decade, my focus has been on the most vulnerable children in countries - particularly in Africa - that are impacted by conflict. It has brought me to camps for displaced families in regions convulsed by violence - Darfur, Chad, South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Almost always, people are eager to tell their stories. The stuff of nightmares. They think the world should know what is happening to them, if the world but knew, surely someone would come to save them.
Even in the face of unthinkable horrors and immeasurable losses, they hold the hope that a 'normal' day will come again for them. And no matter how deplorable the circumstances, every child has a dream: “I want to be a doctor! I want to be a teacher! I want to be a pilot! And for one shining second, everything is possible
This year I made my second journey through the DR Congo where I met 12-year-old 'David' in a Unicef-supported centre for children associated with armed conflict – a camp similar to those in the Central African Republic where Unicef’s work with rescued child soldiers is the focus of this year’s Christmas Appeal by The Independent newspaper.
David said he was about 10 when armed men broke into his home and tore him from his mother’s arms. He was taken to a rebel camp and forced to fight, forced to kill. “There were lots of people killed but somehow I survived,” he told me.
David survived for two impossible years before he managed to escape. Someone brought him to the centre where he was safe and, along with dozens of other boys who have served as soldiers, he could learn a trade.
While the centre searches for their families the children attend class, play games, wash their clothes – and some, like David, sing about their experiences and better days ahead.
In a nearby center, I met girls who had escaped from armed groups. Most, if not all, had been raped. My conversation with 15-year-old ‘Gloria’ will stay with me always. She somehow found words to tell me what had been done to her, and how she was near death, giving birth to a child, when the militia left her on a roadside. She was brought to a clinic, and eventually to this center. In a child's whisper she expressed her longing to make a good life for herself- but especially for the baby boy cooing on her lap.
“If only I had a sewing machine,” she whispered. “I'm good at sewing.” Gloria vowed that her son would one day be 'an educated man.'
For now, she is getting the training she needs along with psychological counseling to help her cope with the trauma she struggles with. She will be mentored by a professional tailor and yes - she will have her own sewing machine.
Despite all that they have endured, David and Gloria are the 'lucky' ones. They are being helped to heal and to realize their goals. But for countless thousands of child victims of war, there is no safe place, no one to help.
This is where Unicef wants to be- in the places where the world’s most vulnerable children are suffering most. It’s a team effort. Unicef can’t do it without support. Won’t you please join us - together we can literally save kids lives.
All of Unicef's work with child soldiers is funded by donations, please be as generous as you can. Click here to donate. Text CHILD to 70030 to donate five pounds. Click here to bid in our charity auction