‘I wouldn’t let my children play with toy guns. In the Congo, theirs is a world of Kalashnikovs’

I have witnessed young lives torn apart after being recruited into brutal militias. The Independent’s Charity Appeal will help give former child soldiers their childhood back

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My own children at their age were doing childish things. But these children – whom I met in places with names few have ever heard of – carried guns and used them. They were called “Sir” and even “General”, though one was called “Stick” because his commander made him walk ahead to test the ground  for landmines.

I remember them all, but it is Antoine I recall most often. His 13-year-old eyes were as jaundiced and jaded as the way he viewed life. He was raw and angry and had just been released with the help of the UN peacekeepers and Unicef from the Mai Mai rebel group in Rutshuru, the lush eastern bush of DR Congo. But then he said: “Sisi watoto.” That is Kiswahili for: “We, the children.”

And his childhood crept in, if only for a moment, through his beautiful boyish voice, not yet broken.

Yet there was no beauty in Antoine’s life. Nor in those of the other nameless boys and girls of war. Theirs was a world where children had Kalashnikovs; a world where children took drugs that made them feel like kings and killing machines; a world where childhood held no meaning.

In our home, my son was not allowed toy guns, but made them out of Lego anyway or played digital war games. My daughter wanted me to bring all the children home with me – the soldiers, the suffering, the starving, the homeless – not just Antoine, all of them.

They listened to the video interview with Antoine – how he joined one rebel group at the age of 10 and then ran away only to be captured and re-recruited by another; they didn’t ask too many questions because they knew there were no good answers. But one question hung in the balance: why?

“Children join the militia because they don’t think about it, they’re too young,” Antoine told me. “When you join you realise that it’s life like an animal. I used to carry my gun over my shoulder or under my arm; Mai Mai gave me medicine and drugs and I  was scared when I went to the front but after I shot five bullets I had no more fear.

“A soldier’s life is no life,” he concluded. “I am no longer a child. I have lost out. I don’t know how to fix this anymore.”

If the question “Why” cannot be answered, sometimes “How” can. How to help; how to heal children like Antoine. I’ve met them in Liberia, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Nepal and DRC – and just weeks ago some Syrian boys in Za’atari, Jordan – boys, and girls, like those being rescued now in the Central African Republic which is where this Independent Christmas Appeal is focused. To protect their identities I have given them names like Antoine, Arun, Abadi. And I have seen sparks of how their lives start to turn around, given half a chance.

Unicef’s child protection experts say that children who have been through such hell “detach” – almost as if they dehumanise to survive. The process of healing, the psychosocial counselling, is about slowly sewing their humanity back to their souls. It’s about drawing pictures, sensing smiles, sharing, kicking around balls, playing cards, finding a routine, finding lost family, getting back to school and learning a skill if formal education is too much.

When I went back to find out what had happened to Antoine, from Unicef Congolese colleagues on the ground who monitor the children’s rehabilitation, they said his family had been found, he was well and trying to catch up the three years he had lost at school. Antoine had had a chance to see a less jaundiced view of life.

Even once the children are home and back at school, the work of protecting them does not end. As Africa’s civil wars are played out in the bush and jungles round the homes of boys like Antoine, the threat of re-recruitment remains and the job of protecting children like him, goes on.

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