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Drawings from a place we can only imagine in our worst nightmares

2012 December 15

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 who 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 demobilized, put back in school, given psychological help and vocational training, and reunited them 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.”

Professor Calam, a specialist in parenting and behavioural problems in children,  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 have 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 terrorize 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 and actions they have experienced, witnessed or perpetrated.

“Drawing can serving a lot of functions,” says Dr Calam, who makes comments on the individual drawings in the captions below. “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”.


**In this picture the soldiers are the larger figures which represents their power. Their victim is smaller even though he is in some ways the central character. The soldier in the centre, in particular, is powerful, menacing and sinister.

**The detail here is horrific. Body parts are being boiled and eaten. What is striking is the contrast between the everyday activities – sitting, eating, the man who seems in charge sitting in an armchair that has been moved outdoors – and the brutality of the killing. The pleading of the victim is graphic but the others ignore him as they eat their gruesome meal. The man in the red shirt is eating a human head. Whether or not the child who drew this actually saw this, or was just told about it to frighten him, it is a vivid illustration of the terrifying mindset created in these children.

This child has gone to an enormous amount of trouble to provide this amount of detail. Notice the faint outlines of bodies in brown crayon between the bolder ones in black ink and the bloodied heads of the two teachers in the orange dresses. The child here wants to convey the full extent of the brutality of a village being pillaged. Note the axe in the girls’ head beneath the tree.

Children draw like this when they are distressed. Look at the way the grass, and the flames from the roof of the school, have been done in such harsh vertical lines. They have been scored in quite a violent action. It’s almost certainly a representation of their distress. And yet look, by contrast, at the childish depiction of the sun between the trees. Note that, as the captives are roped and led away, even the dog has been taken.

This is the most chilling drawing in a way – not merely because of the violence of the central scene but because of what surrounds it: the order of the village, the carefully tended path to the far hut, the neat thatches of the roofs, the man sitting by a cooking fire. It is an ordered world which has all been most carefully drawn. Then in the middle is a brutal machete murder. But what is worst of all is the way the three children in the foreground are sitting still, just watching, like children who have been told to pay attention in class. Presumably they have been ordered to watch the murder of their parent. It is like a perversion of the right ordering of life.

What is striking here is the pattern of the bodies round the tree, making an order out of chaos. Again the soldiers are far bigger than their victims. The detail of the feet of the dead is exact, two feet for every head. It is as if the child who has drawn it is trying to regain control of the chaos.

This is a brutal dismemberment. One person has already been chopped up. The main victim is passive, helpless, expressionless. But the artist’s preoccupation is with the aggressor. Look at the attention to detail in the frightening face, elaborate hair and ears, and the angry square mouth. See the care that has been taken over the camouflage pattern on the uniform. The child is helpless and small alongside the terrifying aggressor. See how at the killer’s foot a chicken is pecking at a severed limb. It is deeply disturbing.

Reproduced from “Where is my home: children in war”, © UNICEF, World Vision, Red Barnet, GUSCO and AVSI.

Pictures marked** are courtesy of the International Rescue Committee.


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