The expression “a life-changing event” is well worn, I know. But the visit I made to the Central African Republic last month will, without doubt, stay with me forever.
While visiting Unicef’s base in the war-torn north-east of the country, I saw the awful impact that soldiering had made on the fragile young minds and bodies of the children enlisted by cynical generals.
Their stories were many and gruesome, and have been told during our campaign over the past five weeks.
In particular, I will never forget skinny young Jean Claude, as I’ll call him, whose experiences in battle, and cruel treatment by his soldiering masters, led him to risk his life by escaping his militia. He arrived in the Unicef camp traumatised, having walked 200km through the bush with nothing but the clothes on his back.
Jean Claude told me how the soldiers came to his village when he was just 14 years old and press-ganged him and other boys into their ranks. During his time with the rebels, he and his young friends had been beaten brutally, forced to spend nights in a punishment pit for “bad behaviour” (such as laughing or playing games) and, worst of all, sent into battle to kill or be killed. Often, he would be attacking children as young as himself.
But, while these children’s stories, so horribly violent, may have been difficult to hear, they were at least taking a turn for the better. The youngsters were now all enjoying a life of play, school and peace, as Unicef prepared them for return to their villages.
Of course, the current unrest means that process may take many more months. But I know Unicef will do all it can to protect them from becoming swept back up in the violence again.
Many people had warned us that campaigning for child soldiers in a little-known African country thousands of miles away would be a wasted effort. “Readers will not respond. Charity begins at home,” they said.
But we at the paper strongly felt that these children’s stories urgently needed telling. When adults force girls and boys into lives of brainwashing, violence and rape, it is the worst kind of abuse and should be publicised at maximum volume.
We knew you would respond with interest and generosity. However, the extent of your kindness has surprised even us. Many thousands of you have donated, digging deep into your pockets during what I know are difficult times.
With more than £173,000 now raised, this one appeal has easily surpassed the total of all three charities we supported last year. Thank you so much.
While the campaign closes today, you can make donations by post, phone, text or online until the end of the month. So please, if you haven’t already, dig deep. Help Unicef give these children of war their childhoods back.