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The thing we don’t like to think about with child soldiers

2012 December 15

I am about to make a statement of the blindingly obvious – so obvious that, paradoxically, you need to stop and think deeply about it for a moment. The thing it is most difficult to get your head round about child soldiers is the fact that they are literally two things – children and soldiers.  Most of us cannot cope with those two facts simultaneously. In thinking about them we switch from one notion to the other.

Nothing quite helps with the psychological process of assimilating that dual reality as looking at pictures drawn by children who have been rescued from combat. In today’s Independent Saturday magazine we print a selection of them together with a perceptive commentary by Dr Rachel Calam, who is Professor of Child and Family Psychology at the University of Manchester who first began training the psychologists who rehabilitate such children in Uganda a decade ago.

The Independent’s Christmas Appeal this year is asking readers to donate to the work of Unicef which is running a major programme to negotiate with rebel factions for the release of such children in the Central African Republic. The charity runs transit centres where children who have been released are given psychological help, put back into school and then given vocational training. It reunites them with their families or resettles them with foster carers. To do the work Unicef relies entirely on donations from the general public.

Nothing quite brings home the fact that these soldiers are children as the drawings they do. In some ways they are like the make-believe artwork of all boys – stick men, pointing guns, with dashed lines for bullets tracking from their barrels. But here there is also the blood and the bodies – and the knowledge that these are not the fantasies of play by which children explore the world and learn in an environment free of consequences.

Here the consequences are real and all too grim. These children have witnessed killing. Some have even killed themselves, after being brutalised by the rebel armies’ training programmes which force their hapless recruits to kill other children or even their own parents.

These drawings are the dark obverse of what Wordsworth called emotion recollected in tranquillity. They are attempts by the children to process, control or come to terms with the terrible things that have happened to them, Professor Calam says in the magazine.

To launch an appeal for child soldiers is, The Independent knows, a bold thing to do.   Fundraisers have told us that the public does not give so readily for such a cause in the way that they do in response to more straightforward humanitarian plights like those of children starving in a famine. The child soldier raises all manner of myths and intuitive prejudices.

“You cannot recapture a lost childhood, for the innocence has gone,” says Rachel Calam. “But you can offer a stable and secure background in which these children can experience kindness as the norm rather than violence and aggression.” It is the start of a long slow process of rebuilding to a normality that the rest of us take for granted.

Children who have had their innocence stolen from them are some of the most damaged children in the world. They need our help perhaps even more than many others. Please give generously.

To donate please visit the campaign homepage at Independent Voices or ring 0800 037 9797. Money raised will help fund Unicef’s work with former child soldiers in Central Africa Republic

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