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They have been forced to do things no one should do. And lost part of their lives too

James Nesbitt says 'child' and 'soldier' are two words that should never go together

Please donate to our appeal for child soldiers here.

The term “child soldier” ought to be an oxymoron. These two words should be so far removed from each other, that they should never be combined into one. How can a child, an innocent being still exploring life, be mixed  with arms and weapons and thrown into conflict?

Yet this is the reality for so many children in Africa. Armed groups recruit children to swell their ranks because they are inconspicuous to the enemy and are easily intimidated or manipulated into actions from which adults might pull back in fear. It is estimated that there are more than 250,000 children – boys and girls – involved in conflicts today.

A few years back, I had the opportunity to meet a group of these children who had been forced to commit acts of violence against civilians, other soldiers or even members of their own community and family. I still find it unbearable to think of what they had been through.

There are child soldiers all across Africa. From the Central African Republic, where The Independent and Unicef are focusing this Christmas Appeal, to South Sudan, children are forced to join armed militias. The children I met were in South Sudan where Unicef is also engaged in a delicate process of demobilising child soldiers and finding ways to bring them back into the community.

It works on reminding everyone, including armed groups, of their legal obligations towards children, as well as giving practical help to rebuild lives once the children have escaped from the armed groups.

It was there that I witnessed the amazing work of Unicef slowly reintegrating these damaged kids into the civilian world and a return to a semblance of normal life.

Meeting these young people I could only marvel at their ability to endure – and their spirit. At Leer in South Sudan I met David. Though he was 17, he divided his time between working at this brother’s market stall and attending primary school. Four years earlier, he had been herding cattle when he was captured by armed  rebels, and forcibly recruited with 100 other children. He walked for three days without food or water, and  on the fourth day he was given a Kalashnikov and forced to go straight into fighting.

This happened when he was just 13. David told me he didn’t know what to do with the gun and kept shooting out of fear until he ran out of bullets.

This was David’s life for the next three years. Surrounded by boys and girls – some fighting, some cooks, porters and messengers, and some used for sexual purposes, living in harsh conditions without enough food and little or no access to healthcare. Life for a child should not be like this.

With the help of Unicef and its partners, David was rescued and is now back home with friends, working on that market stall when he is not in primary school to make up for his lost education. It was five years ago that I met him but I am still in awe of these children and their resilience.

Child and soldier are not words that ought to go together. With the help of Unicef, through The Independent’s Christmas Appeal, we can all do something to make sure that, for those child soldiers who can be reached, this need no longer be the case. Please give generously, and help give someone their childhood back.