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Unicef staff and ambassadors tell the moving stories of child soldiers and how the charity’s work can help heal the mental and physical scars and rebuild young lives

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The Independent Online


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Robbie Williams, Unicef UK, ambassador

“When I was in Sri Lanka some years ago I met children affected by the internal conflict there – children who had witnessed such terrible brutality. To meet those brave children, face to face, to visit their temporary classrooms, to be  invited to play football with them, was humbling.

“Unicef’s tireless work to rebuild lives from the wreckage of war is as important today as it was then. I would urge everyone to give what they can to The Independent’s Child Soldiers Appeal. Your money will give children back a future.”

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Christmas is a festival which puts the child at the heart of our celebrations. Those who work for Unicef –  either as staff or as celebrity ambassadors – travel the world and see children in all kinds of difficulties in widely varying circumstances. But even veterans of many trips to projects to help children across the globe find there is something about rescued child soldiers which touches their hearts in a deeper way. On the eve of the world’s most special children’s day, they try to explain why.

(Watch our playlist of videos from the Christmas Appeal here)

Shantha Bloemen Unicef staff, South Africa

I was working in Liberia following the bitter civil war of the Nineties, which involved many child soldiers. Each Sunday I would take a group of boys who had been demobilised from rebel groups to Mass and then for a game of football against boys from a different transit centre.

I remember how on the journey to church the boys used to practise the hymns in preparation for Mass. This was a set of songs all Liberian kids seemed to know, and the boys would do their best to impress, singing loudly as they drove, the music floating out to everyone we passed along the way.

After Mass, the football match between the centres would begin. There would be occasional disputes but nothing a few words could not calm. Over time, the boys left the transit centres to be reunited with their families or to start vocational training. I heard occasional news of them, how they were pleased to be back home, and not to be at war.

Almost a decade later, I got an email from one of my Sunday boys. He was in Cyprus playing football. He began his email calling me “mother”. He said those Sundays had helped him believe he could become someone else. The belief that he and his friends could be transformed back into something better and believe once again in their humanity, he said, was the critical ingredient to giving him a new start. I know not all the boys I got to know in Liberia succeeded and many were forced back into conflict when the war restarted. Yet, the fact they wanted a second chance is a constant reminder to me of why they cannot be ignored or forgotten in any peace process.

Jemima Khan Unicef UK, ambassador

I have worked with Unicef UK for more than 10 years now, travelling to see their work in the field, campaigning for the rights of children and helping to raise awareness and funds following emergencies. Unicef has a unique reach – accessing children in more than 190 countries and operating in  every conflict zone in the world, ensuring they have access to education, immunisation, healthcare and the most basic rights.

But no one needs Unicef more than those children forced to become child soldiers and who experience the daily horrors of conflict. Child soldiers – boys and girls – are among the most vulnerable children in the world, forced to live a life of savagery and slavery, deprived of education and healthcare and the care of a parent, often suffering from hunger, disease, sexual exploitation and psychological trauma. Unicef is dedicated to the idea that children have a right to be children and not to be forced into an adult world prematurely. I’ve seen Unicef in action and have met rehabilitated and protected former child soldiers. Please join me and support Unicef with this really important Christmas Appeal with The Independent. Your gift will support Unicef’s work to help children rescued from armed groups and provide them with the care and protection they need to move forward with their lives. Give these children back their childhood.

Martin Dawes, Unicef staff, West and Central Africa

Engagement with child soldiers leaves a bruise on the soul. I’ve met many and it is not fanciful to say that on every occasion one has a sense of immense loss. That is because whatever it is that makes a childhood is often missing.

At a demobilisation ceremony in Sudan, we came across a boy who has stuck in my mind. A youngster, aged about 11 who looked as boy-next-door as the dusty conditions allowed. He smiled at the recognition being given him and gave a pleasant grin that lit up his entire face. Yes, he confirmed, he had been a sergeant. They promoted him after he was in an ambush and helped kill some men.

In this childhood train-crash a lot is asked of anyone trying to apply the bandages. But when you get a glimpse of the damage being wreaked on these youngsters you know it is the most important job in the world – trying to save childhood.

Sarah Epstein, Unicef UK, staff

In the 11 years I’ve worked for Unicef  I have met countless children living in extremely difficult circumstances, but none has affected me more deeply than a boy I met in northern Uganda who had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Daniel, I’ll call him, was 15 when I met him, but the expression in his eyes and his mannerisms made him seem far older. He told me he was only seven when he was abducted.

When raiders arrived at his village, he was given a choice: go with the LRA or be killed. During the next three years he was taught to use a machine gun, a machete and mortars. They taught him to raid villages, to terrorise and to kill. I remember vividly him telling me how he saw people killed and their bodies dumped in rivers, and how he was forced to drink from these rivers of blood. At just eight years old.

At the age of 10, Daniel escaped from the LRA during a gunfight with the Ugandan government forces. He ran and ran, and managed to find his way back to his home town. Eventually settling to live with an aunt in Gulu town, he became involved with Empowering Hands, a community group supported by Unicef which provides support and advice for former child soldiers, helping them to build confidence and to reintegrate into society. Through the use of drama, song and dance, the group also helps to reduce the stigma  so many former child soldiers face.

Daniel also started attending a school for children displaced by the conflict, for which Unicef supplied all the essential materials. Having missed out on years of education, Daniel was in a class with much younger children, but his enthusiasm and pride at being back in school was incredibly moving. To see him back at home, going to school, playing football with friends, and attempting to lead a normal life was nothing short of miraculous.

Katie Morrison  Unicef UK, staff

I had just got engaged when I went to South Sudan last year and met Hope and her mum. My life was full of my own “hope” – I had a great job working for Unicef, and had finally convinced my boyfriend that marriage was the best way forward!

Maybe it was the contrast with my own good fortune, but the absolute horror of what happens to children like Hope who are forced to join armed groups – and the urgency of the work that Unicef was doing to help her piece her life back together – hit me hard.

Hope was 13 when I met her, and she told me how she had been abducted by the group most infamous for abducting children, the LRA, while out working on the land one morning. She was forced to walk for miles. Others who had been seized with her from her village were slaughtered to show those left alive what would happen if they tried to escape.

While boys are forced into armed groups to become fighters and porters, young girls are used as cooks, servants and sex slaves. Hope found it hard to talk about her time with the LRA, but showed me a long scar on her leg where she was shot during a rebel encounter. Rather than lose child soldiers to their enemies, armed groups often shoot their own recruits during an attack.

In a way Hope was one of the luckier ones. She managed to escape with her life and found her way to a Unicef-supported centre, where she was cared for and given urgent medical treatment. Physically, she was healed, but mentally the injuries will be much harder to deal with.

I have had the chance to meet some amazing and inspiring children who have survived against the odds, in Haiti after the earthquake, in the slums of Nairobi, on the streets of the Philippines. But sitting with Hope in a small rural village in South Sudan, I have never had such a strong sense of how much children like her need our help. She had a look in her eyes that I have not seen before, a look of true sadness – and of a longing for a different future.

Thinking back, I have also never been prouder to work for Unicef than on that day. When I got back home I vowed to do all I could to raise money for our work helping child soldiers, and as part of this, my husband and I asked guests at our wedding to make a donation to Unicef instead of giving us a gift. We raised more than £2,000, which could support a former child soldier in a rescue shelter for many months.

As one of my colleagues in South Sudan explained to me, raising money for child soldiers is hard. Why? “Because it’s complicated, it’s not a simple image that shows a child suffering. These children are suffering in their heads as well as with their scars.”

This is why The Independent Christmas Appeal for child soldiers is so important; you will be helping heal  the most serious wounds of all.

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