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What next for war children?

London pupils join campaign to help Congo's boy soldiers put horrors of conflict behind them. Nick Hilborne reports

More than 10,000 former child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo need urgent help to prevent them dying of hunger or becoming criminals, a report by charity War Child revealed this week.

The report suggested that more than 30 per cent of them have failed to reintegrate with their families and communities. Teenagers at Archbishop Tenison Church of England secondary in Kennington, south London, have joined calls for the UK government to take action.

"Child soldiers grow up earlier than they should do," William Marsden, 15, said. "They have seen violence and been exposed to death at an early age."

War Child has worked with teachers at Archbishop Tenison to create citizenship lessons about the plight of child soldiers in Africa for each year group.

William, whose father is from Zambia, is researching the issue in Year 10 as part of his citizenship GCSE. "We always hearing that our government is trying to help, but the problems never seem to end," he said. "They need to be more effective."

William said he had been shocked by a visit to an art gallery in London, where rifles and land mines from conflict zones in Africa had been used to create installations.

Michael Kyere, also in Year 10, whose parents are from Ghana, said: "The reality is that many kids are suffering in Congo without parents to help them. There are many countries in Africa in a state of civil war. I wish we could get some people together and go and speak to the government in Congo.

The government is corrupt."

Louise Fox, head of Archbishop Tenison, said some of her students were from Sudan, scene of two separate genocides, one in the south and another in the western region of Darfur. "They travelled overland to get here, up through Egypt and across Europe to Holland. Some of them have seen things no child should ever have to see," she said. There are also three teachers at the school, where 80 per cent of pupils come from African Caribbean backgrounds, from Sierra Leone in west Africa, where peace has only recently returned after a bloody civil war.

War Child has called on the UK government to make sure the millions spent on disarmament and reintegration programmes in Congo are used to tackle the problems of former child soldiers.

Mariel Weighill, programmes director at War Child, said the children were sometimes persecuted when they returned home and went back to school.

"Sometimes they get kicked out by the teachers or driven out by the other children," she said. "People suspect them of having carried out atrocities, or they are blamed for not having earned any money in the war."

Ms Weighill said it was difficult for former child soldiers to see the relevance of school work to making a living, and they lacked money to buy school books and bags.

War Child interviewed 400 children in Congo's western region. In the east of the country the civil war continues.


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