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The Scandal of Child Soldiers in Africa Must Stop

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What hell could make a boy walk 200km through the wartorn forests of central Africa, bearing nothing but the shirt on his back, in a bid for freedom? A lone journey braving the daily threat of discovery, capture and possible death at the hands of heavily-armed militias.

This was my question to the tall, thin 17-year-old Jean Claude, who had made just such an odyssey in a dramatic escape from the rebel army he was forced to join in the north of the Central African Republic.

We were chatting under the shade of a mango tree at the UNICEF rescue camp for child soldiers in the little-known African country.

The cruel sun had long since sucked up any moisture from reddish brown earth, rendering it concrete-hard and dusty despite the rainy season having ended only a week or so earlier. This brutal heat lasted for the duration of my visit with UNICEF to witness the effects of a war so savage and cynical that the army generals put children in the front line. I tried to imagine how Jean Claude could have survived these temperatures during that epic journey, let alone the regular whizz of red hot bullets, starvation and thirst.

He had arrived at the UNICEF camp five months ago. Since then, he had been undergoing a long and painful journey of the mind: being helped by specially trained UNICEF child protection workers to come to terms with the trauma of his experiences. Not just the horrors of death and injury he had witnessed, but the guilt at what he had been forced to do.

Part of that process involves remembering.

So Jean Claude (not his real name, for child protection reasons) told me of how his life had been transformed by war when he was just 14. That was when he was forced to join the adult soldiers who came to his village in search of new recruits.

He had been in many fatal battles. He used to sleep with a weapon next to him. He had seen friends cut down by machine gun fire; many of them child soldiers forced to fight like him. "I was always afraid," he admitted. "I was always afraid of when we might be attacked."

When not fighting, he had been ordered to use his Kalashnikov to extort diamonds from the local miners. He was never allowed to keep the stones, always handing them over to his militia superiors.

The brutality of his leaders was extreme. I heard how the children would be beaten for any misdemeanour; even for just being seen laughing with their friends. A pit was dug in the centre of the camp to which the children would be thrown in as a punishment. I witnessed such a pit at one of the camps we visited. For anybody, let alone a child barely into his teens, it must have been terrifying. For the generals, that brutality and discipline is a key part of the brainwashing process that makes these kids into fearless warriors. That, plus a constant diet of amphetamines and violence.

Jean Claude's face remained passive during the retelling of his story - a slightly eerie calmness I witnessed repeatedly as children told me their awful stories. That's why it was so heartwarming to see them smile and laugh with their whole bodies when they got on with the serious business of dancing, playing football and, well... being kids again. All thanks to their rescuers at UNICEF.

Crucially, like the other youngsters saved from rebel armies at the UNICEF centre, Jean Claude had resumed his schooling. The charity says education is the key to enabling children to become self-sufficient and have a future beyond being a child soldier, without having to rely on a jungle general's rations.

I have always believed strongly in the power of decent schooling to help the most vulnerable children have a better chance in life and enable wartorn populations to heal their rifts. That was one of the many reasons why I was so moved when UNICEF told me of the work it does with child soldiers in the Central African Republic.

I visited Africa a lot as a child - my grandfather was a senior scientist, meaning we were one of the few families in the Soviet Union allowed to travel abroad. The continent, with all its dramatic beauty and vastness, has stayed with me, and I have tried to visit whenever I can. I have always been angered by how its people inhabit some of the most beautiful places in the world, yet so regularly live in abject poverty.

But while my travels meant I'd heard of the Central African Republic - unlike many people in the West - and I knew of the huge problem of child soldiers in the region, it was truly eye-opening and enlightening to see the situation up close, particularly the brave work of the UNICEF workers risking their lives to negotiate their release.

Thousands of children in the country, out of a population of only 5million, have been abducted, tricked or coerced into fighting.

It is a major scandal, which deserves the world's eyes to focus on it. Hopefully, through the campaign in my Independent newspaper this Christmas, and the funds we raise for Unicef, I can make a difference. Given the experiences of Jean Claude and the countless others I met there, it is the least I can do.

You can make a difference too. Please give generously to the Independent's child soldiers campaign at unicef.org.uk/independent