I served in the British Army – no child should be forced to kill

When I first met this boy, Matondo, who is 12 years old, he had the biggest and most welcoming smile on his face. I found it hard to imagine him taking part in brutal warfare. 

I have experienced conflict during my time in the British Army, and it’s something that no child should have to see, let alone take an active part in.

But behind Matondo’s smile was something that was a lot more uncomfortable and scarring. He told me how he received constant beatings from the militia and was ordered to use a gun and kill at the age of 10. 

He was shot in the knee a year later and left behind on the battlefield. He now bears the weight of his past, demonstrated by the crutch that he needs to walk, play football and just be a child with his friends.

Hearing this story brought back my own experiences in places like Afghanistan where I had seen combat. At least there I was with trained professionals, men who knew how to do first aid and look after each other and had the comforting knowledge that we’d never be abandoned. It was harrowing to picture this young boy holding a rifle and fighting in battles with his own neighbours. I could barely imagine how scared he must have been to have to go through that.

But Matondo’s experience is sadly not unique.

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I have been all over the world with my work as an author and photographer, and time spent serving, but I had never been to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country with the highest number of displaced people in all of Africa. 

In my role as a Unicef UK High Profile Supporter, I travelled to the country in October, where I met and spoke with girls and boys who were mid-way through being rehabilitated after serving as soldiers in the militia – some were as young as eight when they were recruited.

We headed to Goma in the North Kivu region, where, since 2004, internal conflicts continue to break out between militias and the Government’s armed forces. Violent and deadly clashes take place throughout this region of the country, with civilians regularly caught up in demonstrations of power and battle for ground.

Both the army and militias have shown civilians no mercy – they rape, torture and slaughter parents in front of their sons and daughters. 

Early on, armed groups (of which there are currently more than 100 in the country) started recruiting children from the villages in the region. According to a Unicef report published in May 2018, 60 per cent of the armed group’s members were minors.

Children involved in the militia are often drugged and manipulated with superstition and promises of magical powers. They’re then violently forced to commit abhorrent acts in the name of loyalty to their country. Those who refuse or try to escape are beaten and their family’s lives are threatened.

Matondo was one of these children. 

Walking into the ‘Centre for Transit and Orientation’ for the first time – where Unicef and its local partners house, rehabilitate and integrate children formally associated with armed groups back into society – I couldn’t believe how young they all looked.

Before arriving, I heard what they had been through – the beatings, the killings, the rituals and the pillaging. It made me somehow imagine them to be different, more adult-like and detached.

But I was wrong. They were vulnerable, in need of guidance, counselling and support and most of all in need of our love and kindness.

Another boy, Alain, who I met when he was 17 and just starting to adjust to civilian life again, told me how he was taken by force at the age of 14 and forced to join an armed group. He was made an escort for the Commander, which meant he had to quickly learn how to use a gun and accompanied the Commander into conflict.

‘Those that couldn’t shoot well were beaten,’ he said, as he recalled how many people he himself had killed – and watched be killed – in front of him. Alain constantly thought about running away, but the armed group made it very clear that his family would pay the ultimate price if he were to do so – it was this fear that made him stay for more than three years. He became ‘desensitised’ to the brutality, he tells me and being scared for his life became his new normality.

I was shocked into silence at Alain’s story, and found myself moved at just how brave he was in his ability to recognise the enormous challenge he faces to move on from the past.

Because of Unicef and its local partners, Alain has received vital medical support, education and counselling and is now being re-homed with a host family in the local community. It is his hope that he will someday soon return to school to catch up on all the education he missed, and he wants to become a teacher so he can help others get the education they so rightly deserve.

But as I write this, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the DRC is one of 10 countries most at risk of additional child deaths due to the disease.

The global pandemic is the biggest crisis affecting children globally since the Second World War, with an additional 6,000 children around the world likely to die every day from preventable causes over the next six months, as the disease itself weakens health systems and disrupts routine services like vaccinations.

Now I’m back in the UK I think of the children I met in the DRC regularly, concerned that they now have coronavirus to contend with, let alone all the other challenges they face. Knowing Unicef is there, working around the clock to give them the best chance possible to rebuild their lives, is something I am grateful to be able to support.

Unicef UK has launched its largest ever appeal “Save Generation Covid”, which is raising vital funds for lifesaving support and services to ensure that children like Matondo and Alain survive this crisis – and thrive beyond it.

Levison’s new photography book ‘ENCOUNTERS’ is published by Ilex in September

My Life Through A Lens

My Life Through a Lens is an exciting series on that looks at one incredible photo, and shares the story that lies behind it. If you have an experience you would like to share, please email [email protected] with MLTAL as the subject.

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