Boy soldiers are a currency of war. Then they have to live with what happens when the guns are replaced by the memories

CHILDREN who kill are a disturbing phenomenon: they offend adult notions of innocence. But children who are made and paid to kill, who fight in armies, who wield kalashnikovs on behalf of their tribe or community or nation - these are more disturbing still. In most western countries, the only guns children carry are plastic ones, and some parents (believing symbolic violence can create a habit for the real thing) won't allow even toy replicas in the house. But there are parts of the world, not all of them remote, where ethnic cleansing and territorial strife mean that children must become adult cruelly early. The child warrior, brutal beyond his years, is an emblem of outrage. In Northern Ireland, Palestine, Eastern Europe and west Africa photographers and television cameras have caught him in action, stone or machine gun in hand.

What's special about Stuart Freedman's photographs is their interest in the ramifications of child violence, not the act of violence itself. David killing Goliath is a good story, with plenty of voyeuristic thrills. But what happens to David afterwards? According to legend, he becomes king. In reality - that is, the reality Freedman has observed in Africa today - David is more likely to become part of a gang living rough, to suffer depression or madness, or (if caught by enemies) to be tortured and imprisoned. Whatever his fate, the experience of committing violence at an early age will have traumatised him.

Freedman has seen the psychic aftermath of several conflicts involving children, in Angola, Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone. His photographs humanise child warriors by stripping off the mask of evil and finding a human face. The faces look battle-scarred and (whether hard or vulnerable) deeply troubled. Even before we've read the captions, we know their histories must be bad. This boy was captured by rebels and became implicated in rape, torture and murder. That girl was used as an army concubine. This teenager sleeping rough in a disused car was forced to fight for the government against his own people and can't now return to his village, for fear of reprisals. This boy manned a road- block while off his head on crack. That one severed the hands of enemies. This Ugandan of 17 was conscripted by the terrifying, messianical Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, and recalls killing "at least 12" people - "but," he adds, as if to excuse himself, "only two with a machete".

A tiny number of ex-warriors in West Africa receive treatment for their problems, which include drug addiction (some tell stories of gunpowder being put in their food, to make them manic), uncontrollable mood swings, insomnia and bedwetting. Others are able to confess their crimes in safety, not to enemy commanders but to priests. But there aren't the charities and individuals to make much of an impact alleviating the psychological damage and distress - let alone to get juveniles convicted of atrocities placed in separate prisons from adult ones. Meanwhile, the belief grows in some quarters that the West can do nothing to help, such is the "mindless violence" in Africa today. Robert Kaplan's essay "The Coming Anarchy" and his book The Ends of the Earth encourage western passivity, Stuart Freedman believes, by telling a story of a barbarism beyond comprehension.

His own Africa isn't an exotic heart of darkness, just as his child warriors aren't sadistic crazies. If the captions didn't tell you otherwise, you could think some of the faces were from Toxteth or Moss Side. That's part of the point, of course. Brought up on Rambo, and high on their own adolescent sexuality, teenage boys all over the world have fantasies of inflicting enormous harm. The only difference in west Africa is that warlords, would- be messiahs and the proliferation of light arms enable those fantasies to be acted out.

It's not the acting out of the fantasies Stuart Freedman depicts, but the cost. What does it mean when children are deprived of their childhoods? What happens to the next generation, if there is one? Looking for answers in Sierra Leone nearly cost Freedman his life, when his cameras were confiscated and a gun put to his head. But his film survived, his photographs won an Amnesty award, and now there's a book and an exhibition.

These aren't conventional war shots. The landscapes they explore are internal ones. Happiness is a warm gun, but here the gun has gone cold. How those who pull the trigger live - or fail to live - with the memory: that's the story Stuart Freedman tries to tell.

! Stuart Freedman's exhibition, 'Lord of the Flies', is at the AFAEP Gallery, 81 Leonard Street, London EC2 (0171 739 6669), 13-27 October. Unicef appeal for war-traumatised children, code 98 8302 01P; donations to Room INDS 1, Unicef, Freepost, Chelmsford CM2 8BR

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