Three former child soldiers from Africa announced the launch of a new U.N.-backed advocacy group Thursday to help other kids escape and heal from war.
The three survivors, all in their 20s, say the group, which aims to create a global network of young people like themselves, have since made their homes and gotten educated in the United States.
They say the long road to rehabilitation runs through education.
"The key was discovering I could do other things than just fight," said Ishmael Beah, who wrote a best-selling memoir about being pressed into service in his native Sierra Leone's civil war at age 13.
"I was able to go to school. I discovered I was capable of a lot of other things. ...I learned to use my mind."
Beah, who already serves as UNICEF's first "Advocate for Children Affected by War," will lead what he calls a new U.N.-backed "knowledge-based advocacy group." He noted it was the government, not a rebel group, that had conscripted him and ended the "simplicity" of childhood. He fought for almost three years before UNICEF rescued him.
The U.N. says the number of child soldiers around the world is estimated at 250,000.
'Kill or be killed'
Becoming a child soldier means being taught to "kill or be killed," said Grace Akallo.
She recalled being taken into captivity as a teenager by a rebel group for seven months in northern Uganda, one of tens of thousands of children abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army and forced to fight against the Uganda government.
She was snatched from her high school along with 139 other girls who were marched to southern Sudan where the rebels lived in bases protected by allies of the Sudanese government, she said.
Kon Kelei, the third former child soldier, said he was taken into a camp in southern Sudan when he was just 5 years old and told that it was school.
"An AK-47 is not meant for a kid. It's not meant for a human being, let alone a kid," he said. "Rehabilitation is actually what made me who I am and what I'm talking about today."
'Power of resilience'
Their personal stories and the announcement — coinciding with the U.N.'s Universal Children's Day, created in 1954 — are inspiring examples of "the power of resilience," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the top U.N. envoy on children and armed conflict.
She told the U.N. Security Council in February that 58 groups in 13 countries still recruit and use child soldiers and that, in addition to being pressed into service, children in several countries are also killed, maimed, abducted and raped and denied access to humanitarian groups.
The 13 countries where groups that recruit child soldiers operated are Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Myanmar, Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Colombia, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Uganda, according to the United Nations.
In 2005, the council passed a resolution establishing a group to monitor and report on countries and groups using child soldiers. Legal action has been taken against recruiters of child soldiers in Congo and there have been several convictions in Sierra Leone, Coomaraswamy said.
"The key word is education — to encourage these people to come back to school," said Italian Ambassador Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata, who hosted the announcement and a reception Thursday night for the new advocacy group.