Orphans of war: why Unicef does no more valuable work than when helping Africa's child soldiers

The veteran war correspondent says that to understand why rescued child soldiers need our help, you need only to listen to their stories and look into their eyes

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The growing use of child  soldiers is one of the most disturbing features of modern warfare. Underage soldiers, some as young as 10, are recruited in most conflicts, usually by rebel forces but also by national armies. They are taken on initially as cleaners, porters, camp guards and – in the case of the girls – sex slaves. They go on to bear arms and to kill or be killed. Their childhoods are stolen from them.

Their numbers are unknown and unknowable, but they run into tens of thousands. They change and evolve as militia groups cross borders, as demobilised children are re-recruited, and as old conflicts die out and new ones begin.

Orphans of war

The problem gets little attention, since it seldom affects the strategic balance of power. But to Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the disarmament and demobilisation of these victims of war is a major preoccupation. Since 1998 it has rescued more than 100,000 of them, mostly, but not only, in Africa. In Nepal in 2010 it secured the release of children who had fought for the Maoist guerrillas in a decade-long civil war.

Child soldiers are often orphans of war. The armed group gives them protection and a sense of family. Some are more than orphans. At a Unicef-funded centre in West Equatoria, the remotest province of South Sudan, I saw a 12-year-old boy who had been forced to club his own father to death. Sister Giovanni Calabria, the Italian nun who runs the centre, said that for much of the time he was crying and rarely spoke. Another child in her care had killed 80 people. In such cases, which are all too frequent, the killer is also the victim.

The Lord’s Resistance Army, which was responsible for these atrocities, operates across the unmarked and unguarded borders of South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Its commander, the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, is the world’s most wanted man.

I met another of the LRA’s victims, whom I shall call Hope. (Unicef tells the stories but protects the identities.) She was about 13. (Very few of these children actually know their age.) She was abducted one morning, with many others, while working on the land. The LRA assured them that nothing bad would happen to them. “We had to walk long distances,” she said. “We never spent more than two days in one place. The worst thing was the walking.”

Hope was with the LRA for about a year. When she tried to escape, she was caught and beaten: her back is still covered with scars. “My main worry was death,” she said. “I knew that at any moment I could be killed.”

She was finally liberated by Ugandan forces in a fire fight in which she was shot in the leg. Her wounds were not only of the body but of the mind. She spoke softly and urgently, without eye contact. She was clearly severely traumatised, yet she had ambitions. “I want to get an education,” she said. “I want to be someone who writes.”

One of Unicef’s highest priorities is to provide specialist care to such children, in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach places. National governments lack the resources for this. Only Unicef and its partners can provide them. But there is never enough money. The funding gap is a frightening $35m. That is why initiatives like The Independent’s Christmas Appeal are so important.

A sense of belonging

I remember a nine-year-old child in Yemen, whom I met on another of my Unicef missions. She too was badly traumatised, having been bombed out of her home near the Saudi border, in one of that country’s unreported wars. She was with her mother in a refugee camp, not knowing who she was or where she was. I had never in my life seen such eyes. We think of post-traumatic stress disorder as being something that happens to soldiers. It happens to children too. The difference is that with children it lasts longer.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, I met demobilised child soldiers who even had a certain nostalgia for the life from which they had been rescued. Carrying a gun had given them a sense of importance and belonging. A 12-year-old even admitted he had enjoyed killing people.  Thanks to Unicef, however, his killing days were over. Now his ambition was to be a mechanic.

Some of the volunteers in Unicef’s rehabilitation centres are former child soldiers themselves. They are experts: they have been there and done it. One of them – in Yambio, South Sudan – was Justin Ebere, who was abducted by the SPLA, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, at the height of Sudan’s 20-year-old civil war. He was 16 at the time. He and the boys he was with were assured that they were being taken away to school.  When they reached the bush they were told: “You are not going to school. The gun is your school.”

The gun was the Kalashnikov, lighter and more easily handled than other assault rifles – and, in a grim sense, child’s play. Justin said: “When they take children they teach them brutality, show them how they will kill people.”

Unicef does no more valuable work than in rescuing these victims of war.

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