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It was a sunny, warm afternoon in October when Grace was walking home with her friends. The 13-year-old girls had just finished a long day at school and were chatting about a boy they fancied in the village.
All of a sudden a group of teenage boys stepped out of the tall grass. Pointing their AK-47s at the girls, they shouted: “Stop! Who are you and where do you think you’re going?”
Grace immediately recognised one of the boys: it was Nelson, her former neighbour and friend who had gone missing after their northern Ugandan village had been raided by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) a year earlier.
Nelson was only 12 when he disappeared and nobody had seen him since – until that warm, October day when Grace discovered he had been recruited as a child soldier by the LRA.
While Nelson and his fellow child soldiers ordered the girls to come with them and aggressively tied their wrists together, Grace whispered to him: “Nelson, please let me go, my mother is ill and I have to take care of her.”
There was no discussion: “You better be quiet and stop crying, or I will show you what I can do with my gun. You are coming and I will show you who your real family is,” he shouted at her. Grace, confused by Nelson’s unforgiving attitude and terrified the boys would kill her, dried her tears and quietly followed them into the bush.
After walking through dense forest for several days the group of teenagers finally reached the rebel camp: exhausted, scared and disorientated. Upon arrival the commanders gathered to have a look at the new recruits. Grace was a particularly beautiful girl, something that did not go unnoticed by the male rebels. Nelson was praised for his great “catch” and it was rebel leader Joseph Kony himself who picked Grace to be one of his wives.
Years later I met both Grace and Nelson in a rehabilitation centre for child soldiers. Both had been wounded during battle and were rescued by the leading children’s charity Unicef, for which The Independent Christmas Appeal is raising funds this year. Were they were glad to be back home? They were not so sure at the time.
While being with the LRA, something had happened to Grace and Nelson. Even though they had initially been abducted, both developed feelings of loyalty to the group and expressed feelings of appreciation towards the rebels when they spoke about their experience.
“I finally felt like a man when I was with the LRA, my life had a purpose and they promised me a good position in the government when we would win the war. The rebels became my family; my commander was my father. I wanted to be a good rebel and show that I deserved to be with them,” Nelson said.
Against every expectation, Grace spoke affectionately about her husband, Joseph Kony.
Only 13 years old when given to Kony as a bride, she said: “My husband treated me well, he always took good care of me. We had two children together. Kony sometimes played with them, made them smile. He was a good father and made sure we had enough to eat. Life in the bush was hard, but nobody had ever taken care of me like that before. There are days I wish I was still there where I belong, with him.”
Strikingly, Grace and Nelson were not the only former child soldiers I met who spoke about their time in the bush in such ways.
During my interviews with hundreds of former child soldiers in Uganda, DR Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Mozambique, it turned out that the majority of these children had gone through alarmingly powerful socialisation processes within the armed groups.
This drastically changed the behaviour and identity of child recruits by teaching them new skills, roles, norms, values, motivations, and rules, and these processes transformed even abducted children into loyal soldiers.
Hundreds of interviews showed that socialisation – by which individuals acquire the culture of their group – effectively moulds children into soldiers and melts their identities into the identity of the armed group. It is used as a tool to create allegiance, preventing children from escaping, and providing the glue that keeps armed groups together.
Illustrating just how powerful these socialisation processes are, Grace, Nelson and numerous others explained that they had developed a strong sense of belonging to the armed groups.
Removing this sense of belonging is one of the critical challenges to a child’s attempt to return to society: it has jeopardised the reintegration of thousands of former child soldiers.
Growing up within an armed group also estranges children from a normal civilian life in which violence and conflict are not normal. In order for them to successfully reintegrate the process that transformed them from children into soldiers needs to be reversed.
If former child soldiers do not get the opportunity to work through these challenges by participating in programmes such as Unicef’s initiative in the Central African Republic, the results can be disastrous. Maria, abducted as a child soldier when she was only nine years old, told me how difficult it was for her to return to her community:
“When I was rescued from the battlefield, I was brought home to live with my family. It was very difficult. I was not used to them and I did not like it in the village. People looked at me, did not want to talk to me and just called me names. They were making fun of me. I wanted to go back to the bush, back to my friends and fight.”
After spending eight years with the rebels and not receiving any rehabilitation or reintegration support afterwards, Maria had severe problems adapting to civilian life. When she had spent a few weeks with her parents the situation escalated.
“One day my father was angry with me because I wanted to go back to the bush to be with the rebels. He did not understand that being a rebel can feel good.
“That day I left my village and I never went back. I still miss the times when I was with the rebels: I have never felt like I belonged anywhere since I left the group. I am alone now and sleep with men to survive.”
Maria’s story is one of many showing how important it is to invest in the rehabilitation and reintegration of former child soldiers. Child soldiers are often portrayed as dangerous, merciless killers.
Yet, when interviewing former child soldiers across the African continent they all turned out to have something in common. They were fragile, felt betrayed, used, desperate, scared and lost. Their existence felt meaningless: the wars had not brought them what they had hoped for, promises were broken, families were lost, and most of them ended up in situations of desperation very similar to the situations they had hoped to escape when joining armed groups.
Their trust in adults had been shattered by the war; they put their lives in the hands of commanders who promised the world to them, but now they were left with nothing. Many had tried to find guidance in their struggle for a better life; most had failed.
When armed conflicts end, numerous child soldiers choose not to return home; they feel ostracised, stigmatised, demonised and rejected by their societies. Many of these children disappear in the anonymity of urban centres where they continue to face hardship.
To improve these situations, it is of essential importance to restore the broken trust between former child soldiers and their societies.
A renewed co-operation will contribute to the re-establishment of ties between children and their communities. It will assist former child soldiers in creating new civilian identities and in finding respected and meaningful social roles within their communities.
To achieve this, the transformations child soldiers go through while being part of armed groups, whether forced or voluntarily, need to be reversed through programmes of psycho-social readjustment like the ones Unicef is running in the Central African Republic. Only then can their place and role within the civilian world be reconstructed, making them part of their communities again and giving them the chance to work towards brighter futures, without violence.
For their own protection the names of the child soldiers in this article have been changed.
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