The horrors they've seen: A child psychologist assesses the art of Africa's former child soldiers

These drawings, created at rehabilitation centres, testify to scarcely imaginable suffering. Dr Rachel Calam assesses their meaning.

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Donate to The Independent's Christmas appeal here.

Anyone who has been stopped by a small teenager with a big gun at a roadblock in Africa will tell you that it is all too easy to forget that the person in front of you – often wildly pop-eyed with drugs – is a child. But take the gun away, remove them from the guerrilla army and put them back in the classroom and they will produce drawings which all too readily bring home their age.

The drawings on these pages have been assembled by a number of charities that rescue child soldiers and try to restore to them the childhood of which war has cheated them. It is estimated that today some 300,000 children – between the ages of 7 and 17 – are involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide. Abducted boys are forced to become combatants and girls to become domestic labourers and sex slaves.

The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year is asking readers to donate to the work of Unicef in the Central African Republic where it has an extensive programme to negotiate with rebel groups to get these children freed. It runs transit centres where children who have been released are demobilised, put back in school, given psychological help and vocational training, and reunited with their families or resettled with foster carers. To do this work Unicef relies entirely on donations from the general public.

"You cannot recapture a lost childhood, for the innocence has gone," says Dr Rachel Calam, who is Professor of Child and Family Psychology at the University of Manchester. "But you can offer a stable and secure background in which these children can experience kindness as the normal adult behaviour rather than violence and aggression."

Dr Calam first came into contact with the psychological problems of child soldiers a decade ago in Uganda, when she ran a workshop on post-traumatic stress at Makere University in Kampala for Ugandan psychologists who had been working with rescued child combatants.

"Childhood is a process whereby the individual gradually becomes more independent, and learns how to cope with life and form long-lasting relationships," she says. "For these children all their experience of these educational, social and intimate relationships has been distorted. They have undergone initiations to dehumanise them, being made to kill other children or their own parents. Those who can't keep up on forced marches are killed. It is done so that they know they will never be able to return to their home villages, to make them feel dependent on the militia and to terrorise them into compliance.

"So it's really important for children after they are rescued to be put in a context where they feel safe and secure. Where they can have the conversations that these drawings prompt."

What the drawings – gathered by Unicef, World Vision, Red Barnet, Gusco and AVSI and the International Rescue Committee – show is ex-child soldiers trying to come to terms with the horrifying events they have experienced, witnessed or perpetrated.

"Drawing can serve a lot of functions," says Dr Calam, who makes comments on the individual drawings in the captions here. "It helps the child to process what has happened to them. There'll be disconnects because of the strategies they have developed for coping; they may be very mature in some ways and immature in others. Aggression will be very common."

The pictures show that in a jumbled mix of power and powerlessness, cruelty and helplessness, anger and pleading, guilt and terror. "These children will carry this with them into adulthood," says Dr Calam. "By drawing it they attempt to gain control over it".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?