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
Share

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

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia  

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Oliver Poole
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices