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Hand of hope for child war victims in Africa

LOOK me, look me here," says Hassanatu Kamara, rapping me on the chest with the back of her knuckles and writhing on the spot with pride, all fake lashes and rhinestone encrusted nails on fingers and toes for the occasion.

We're on Azzolini Highway in Makeni in the heart of Sierra Leone where Hassanatu runs her own restaurant, The Sunrise, nearby -- and it's taken almost four hours to get here from Freetown in our vast white diplomatic Land Cruisers, rolling slowly like moon rovers in places over deeply potholed roads of hard-packed, blood-red mud.


Insects swarm over filthy puddles at our feet now and scrawny dogs caked with dirt tug feed on chunks from smouldering piles of rubbish in this deafening din of constantly beeping Poda Poda vans that ferry windows packed with the compressed flesh of passengers past, a chaos of near misses with the countless Okadas, taxi motorcycles exchanged by thousands of child soldiers for their guns.

"I got me my dollars," coos Hassanatu over the bedlam, rolling her eyes and rapping me on the chest again, "look me this gold watch I send my sister to Guinea to get."

If it sounds like she's bragging, perhaps she is -- but it's hard not to forgive the former sex slave with a bullet hole in her right thigh, the souvenir of an attempted escape from RUF rebels.

A cheer erupts and applause from inside the corrugated iron walls of the tiny, crowded lean-to dining room just yards away as Minister Joe Costello announces €50,000 in funding for Caritas, the relief agency that gave Hassanatu her new start.

"Now I cook the couscous, rice, chicken and plantains," continues Hassanatu obliviously, "and people they come in me community who never talk to me before when all they see was a rebel wife."

Hassanatu says she's 26. In truth, she has no idea how old she is, only that she was captured by rebels in 1994 and made a 'bush wife' -- a phrase that does little justice to the gang rape, sexual torture and slavery imposed on girls all over this region in the wake of a civil war that claimed 50,000.

When the conflict ended in 2002, the rebels withdrew, abandoning the likes of Hassanatu, who found themselves isolated by their townspeople and unable to qualify for DDR programmes (disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration) because they had no weapons to hand in.

Caritas offered training for these youths, a way back into their local communities, as tailors, taxi drivers, welders and cooks.

Hassanatu saunters away, impossibly proud, and is quickly replaced by the rake- thin figure of David squeezing out from the shack. An articulate, relatively educated young man, he once fled rebel forces with his sister. "They burned 52 houses, one of them was mine. We could not find our parents so we went to look but we went the wrong way."

He speaks so softly that I'm forced to lean in to where I can see every detail in his eyes, which are unflinching.

David lost his sister -- "she died," he says almost matter-of-factly -- then a rebel commander took him. "It was Captain Lambo. Yes."

The commander jabbed him full of drugs -- rebels are known to have used a concoction of cocaine and gunpowder -- by a needle into his rib cage. He was 16.

As David speaks, a group of thinly muscled teenagers in oily vests linger nearby in the unbearable humidity of the early rainy season, silently shooting dark glares from under their brows. They're not far off the ages of my own boys back home and it's easy to imagine young David, alone, hopeless and captive.


He pulls up his shirt and points to the scar where the drugs were forced into him again and again. "They make me chant rebel songs and tell me over and over and over, the rebels come to bring a good change for you, then one day he tells me I must fight."

The night of assault was a storm of gunfire and confusion. David found himself in the doorway of a shack.

"A very old man in there, he sees I am young, he says I am too young for this and he hides me until they are gone." When it was safe, David was brought to Freetown where he escaped much of the rest of the conflict.

His family were killed. How long he was captive, groomed for conflict, what other things he saw and did during that time and how long he was free afterwards is unclear to him now.

"There is very much I cannot remember," says David, a phrase that I am to hear repeatedly in Sierra Leone from those whose childhoods were lost in the blur of utter destruction of an entire country.

"I had nothing when I saw a poster about Caritas," he says. "I did not think they would take me but I went and I asked to apply and they took me. Now I cook here."

David sticks out his chin and stands suddenly silently, looking back at me and. It feels that the only natural thing to do is to put an arm around his bony shoulders like one would a brother or a son.

Because it's one thing to hear about child soldiers and all the things that phrase conjures up, but quite another to stand a foot away from this immaculately turned-out young man, and to look into his eyes; eyes that look back into yours and that have seen things the word 'horror' falls pitifully short of encompassing.

David holds his head high, returned to the community where he once lost everything, where he is now piecing a life together in a place that has been utterly shattered by the very worst that humankind is capable of, even pitting children against children.

And in such a place, somewhere starting all over again from the very epitome of nothing, this small monetary gesture from Ireland today could hardly be better spent if it is to lift the shoulders and heads of people like David and Hassanatu once again and perhaps someday even to soften their gaze.