Childhood under assault
Part 3: Lionel, Central African Republic
Girls and boys deserve to grow up free from abuse and exploitation. But in the world’s most dangerous places, childhood is frequently the first casualty. Here is Lionel’s story, the third in our 10-part series.
Warning: descriptions of violence experienced by children.
“I didn’t want to do it.”
Lionel became a soldier at age 11. He did it to stay alive.
The soldiers who gunned down his terrified community members had also targeted Lionel’s mom and dad. They tortured them, then killed them.
Lionel managed to run for the bush. War raged all around him. Though thousands of children across the Central African Republic had felt similar panic, growing up amidst violent conflict, it made no difference. Cowering in the trees, Lionel was alone in the world.
He stepped out of the bushes and volunteered himself as a child soldier. “I didn’t want to do it,” he remembers, “but the opposition had killed my family, and I had to join to protect myself.”
Scenes of destruction from conflict in Lionel's home community of Damara. In 2013, armed groups attacked, recruiting children to their forces. Shortly after, World Vision came and began the work of protecting children in the area. Photo: Chelsea Maclachlan
It’s an effective recruitment strategy. Offer a terrified child the protection he needs to survive. Become that child’s lifeline, family, and sole method of survival. Then, he is yours for the commanding.
Lionel was too small to effectively manage a weapon, so the leaders put him in charge of ammunition. He was close at hand during battle. He saw and heard things no child should even imagine.
Eventually, Lionel was released from service. The fighting had eased, and to the militia he was disposable. But his mind was dominated by unthinkable images, and horrible, heart wrenching sounds.
How can a boy filled with nightmares resume childhood? Where and with whom? Who wants a broken, orphaned kid with no way to support himself?
Turning for home
Instinctively, Lionel began walking for home. It turned out to be a good decision. What happened next sounds like the stuff of TV commercials. But for this boy – and for hundreds of other child soldiers nearby – it was real.
World Vision was working in Lionel’s community, helping restore children who had served with military groups – some as soldiers, others as labourers or forced brides. The staff offered kindness. Understanding. Reconciliation. And the hope of healing.
But how do you help children like Lionel build peace with soldiers from ‘the other side’? With children whose leaders had raped, tortured, even killed their loved ones?
The practice of peace
Lionel was invited to join a Peace Club, where he learned the importance of tolerance, human rights and, most importantly, forgiveness. Staff teams had to be patient and persistent. For many of these children, forgiving their enemies took a year or more. But through talks, music, dance and play, the children grew more at ease with one another.
Global poverty is in retreat but has become more concentrated in the world’s darkest places. Over the next decade, more than 80 per cent of the world’s poorest children and families will live in the most dangerous places where lives and futures are threatened by conflict and disaster. Join the movement and take action against injustice. Learn how you can help.
Lionel, left, with Clara, a friend from Peace Club and Peace Club Monitor Timotee. Photo: Chelsea Maclachlan
They realized they weren’t really opponents. They were all victims of war. And they all wanted a peaceful future. World Vision equipped and emboldened the children to be advocates for peace, laying the groundwork for a different tomorrow.
Today, at 17, Lionel is learning carpentry. It’s a more productive and hopeful vocation than the last one. And Lionel, an enterprising type, has the vision to become a businessman. It’s all possible with peace.
“I finally feel safe and okay,” he says. “Peace is very important. When there is no peace, everything breaks down.”