On the first week of January, the International Committee of the Red Cross reunited 152 children who have fallen victims to conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with their families. In the period they were separated from their families, these children worked as cooks, porters, messengers, scouts and spies — and even sex slaves and child soldiers.
For these children, and for others like them in other parts of the globe, returning to normalcy won’t be easy. They’ve all seen the horrors of war, have lived and suffered through it. For various reasons, family members sometimes refuse to take them back, leading some of these children to slide back into violence and insecurity.
And Ishmeal Alfred Charles should know. Now currently managing Healey International Relief Foundation’s work with Caritas Freetown in Sierra Leone, he had originally wanted to become a medical doctor — until the 11-year conflict erupted in Sierra Leone.
“The environment and the reality that you’re faced with, it influences the direction of what exactly you want to be,” he shared with Devex.
Life as a child soldier
It was 1997. Charles, as people call him nowadays, was only 14 when rebels threatened to attack Sierra Leone’s capital city — and his hometown. The rebels burned down their town, and after being separated from his mother and siblings, he went on foot to seek refuge in his father’s house in Kono, a district 359 kilometers away from Freetown. But the rebels went to the diamond-rich district instead, and while they did not attack Kono, they plundered diamonds and kidnapped and recruited young boys in the area — including Charles.
“They used us for those purposes like carrying stuff and moving around,” he recalled. “They needed the numbers, basically to be bigger, and in order to get the numbers bigger, they need more young people who they can easily influence. And they are taking advantage of the fact that young people mostly have limited capacity to know the issues and what they want and what they don’t want.”
He remembered being tortured and fed “maggot-filled food.”
Charles was able to escape during a rebel encounter with ECOMOG, a military observer group of the Economic Community of West African States, which he remembers as having flown war jets over the area to spy on or shoot at the rebels. His freedom was short-lived, however, as he was soon captured by the rebels again, and then the Kamajors, traditional hunters that were employed by then-President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and served as the government’s Civil Defense Forces.
This time, he was locked in a cage along with other child soldiers; they were threatened to be thrown in the sea, unless they are publicly identified by a family member or someone who knows them to certify that they aren’t rebels. But apart from having little to no access to radios in town, anyone who identified them was in danger of being mistaken as a rebel as well — or at the very least, a supporter of rebels.
Luckily for Charles, a woman came out to identify him — a stranger he’s never seen even to this day.
“I believe she’s an angel,” he surmised, “it was just a very difficult circumstance and you won’t be able to imagine a conflict situation where there’s no government, there’s no leader, anyone [who] holds a gun at any point in time is a leader and everything can happen.”
Like other child soldiers, Charles struggled to be reunited with his family after his release. With no money or job, and not a clue where his parents may be, he had to find a way to survive in a town far from home.
And he found it in Magburaka, an economic center at the heart of northern Sierra Leone that also served as a refuge for people fleeing conflict in their respective towns. He helped in a local food joint, washing dishes in exchange for food and a “metal roof” on his head.
It was only after a chance encounter with a friend of his mother who informed him that she’s still alive and has been looking for him in a hospital in Freetown, where the injured are taken or those child soldiers whose hands were chopped off, that his situation started to improve. As soon as she heard of the news, Charles’ mother sent him money so he can come back home.
He was then 15 years old.
Life as an ex-child soldier
The conflict in Sierra Leone didn’t end until 2002. By then, the number of recruited child soldiers in the country had ballooned to more than 10,000, according to estimates by the United Nations — which some argue is an underestimation. Globally, there are about 250,000 child soldiers at present.
There were a number of local and international organizations that set up camp to offer support to child soldiers and help integrate them back to society. The government also set up a National Commission for War-Affected Children to make sure sufficient resources and attention are given to them as part of the country’s national reconstruction.
But it’s never easy, nor straightforward.
One thing Charles has learned — after studying peace and conflict at the University of Sierra Leone years after the infighting, and volunteering and working with different organizations as a youth advocate, youth adviser and life-skills project manager for young people having difficulty dealing with stress or who have been victims of gender-based violence — is the importance of giving these child victims a voice.
“Young people will have limited capacity or experience in actually coming forward … in a nonviolent way,” he explained, adding that for many of these young people, resorting to the violence is the only way they know how to communicate their anger.
In 2014, the United Nations launched a campaign to bring to zero the number of children used by government forces in armed conflicts by 2016, hoping it would lead nonstate actors to follow through. But until then, Charles will continue to become a voice for them.
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