Each year, in the run-up to Christmas, when people have present-buying on their minds, this newspaper asks our readers to set aside some of their festive spirit to help those less fortunate than themselves. This year, we have chosen to focus all your generosity in a single place, and that is a Unicef project to venture into the African bush and negotiate with ruthless killers and rapists for the release of some of the child soldiers they have pressed into combat. The charity then provides shelter for the rescued children, with intensive psychological rehabilitation to help heal the mental scars.
The choice was, we know, a risky one. Professional fundraisers warned us that people do not give so readily for such a cause, in comparison with, say, a natural disaster that leaves children starving. The child soldier – or in the case of the girls, the child sex slave – is simply more difficult to relate to.
A boy with a gun raises all manner of myths and prejudices: some have indeed been abducted, but others have joined an armed group to seek revenge on another group which, for example, murdered their family. Equally, a repeatedly raped girl, whose trauma will not allow her to make eye contact or even speak, can convey anger and a refusal to engage.
Yet these are some of the most damaged children on our planet – and some of the most in need of our help. The growing use of child soldiers is one of the most disturbing features of modern warfare, as one Unicef supporter, the veteran war correspondent Martin Bell, has written. Whether they go on to kill or be killed their childhoods have been stolen. "You are not going to school," one kidnapped boy was told. "The gun is now your school."
Nothing brings home the fact that these ex-soldiers are children quite so vividly as their drawings from art therapy, which were printed in our magazine on Saturday and are now on our website. They are the familiar fantasy scribbles of any child – crude figures, pointing guns, dashed lines for bullets. But this is no make-believe. The blood and the bodies and the juxtaposition of violence and normality spring from a reality too gruesome for the rest of us to imagine.
Rescuing such children is perilous work. The rebel warlords who control them are killers. They rarely want to relinquish valuable cannon fodder – brainwashed and intimidated and sent, without an adult understanding of the consequences, into the front line of battle. The Unicef staff who conduct the negotiations deep in rebel territory are incredibly brave. They work with no protection other than the charity logo on their vehicle. It is a courage which is humbling to observe.
The Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks only eight places from the very bottom of the UN's Human Development Index. It is there that Unicef is running a major programme to negotiate with rebel factions for the release of child soldiers. It then takes the children into transit centres where they receive counselling before being either put back into school or given vocational training. When the process is far enough advanced, it reunites them with their families or resettles them with foster carers. And to do all this, Unicef relies entirely on donations from the general public.
The hope that lights up the faces of these rescued children when they are freed from their status as orphans of war is something to behold. It is difficult to conceive that anyone could give, or receive, a better present this Christmas. Please donate generously.