By: Carol Sanders, Winnipeg Free Press
Original post: 07/22/2011
Music restores hope to ex-child soldiers
Their bodies aren’t destroyed but the spirits of many child soldiers have deserted them.
“Their eyes are completely vacant,” said Darcy Ataman, a Winnipeg music producer who just got back from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His Song For Africa organization is working with Sen. Roméo Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative to put a stop to the use of children for killing and get them making music instead.
To get into the conflict zone, they were accompanied by United Nations security from the moment they landed in Kigali, Rwanda, and transported to the centre for ex-child soldiers over the border into Congo.
The UN transit centre at Goma houses kids ranging in age from eight to 16.
“It looks like a concentration camp,” said Ataman, who was not allowed to photograph the children inside the fortress surrounded by brick walls topped with razor wire.
At first glance, the former warriors seemed like normal children, said Ataman. There were kids singing and dancing in the middle of the dirt compound. When he got closer, it occurred to him that they have raped and killed en masse with AK-47s bigger than their underdeveloped, malnourished bodies.
“Others were catatonic,” said Ataman, who’s worked with kids in some of the poorest places in Africa.
The child soldiers were different. “They’re not interacting and (they’re) hard to engage,” said Ataman.
As soldiers, they weren’t allowed to have possessions. Their leaders got them high and kept them loyal with doses of “brown-brown” — a combination of gunpowder and cocaine that “fries their brain to the extent that they’re prepared to kill.”
At the transit centre, they’re protected and can stay for three-month stints, he said. “It’s a lot more pleasant, except now they don’t have any power (over others),” Ataman said.
It’s a short space of time to try to re-program the kids to get them back into their villages, he said. “They don’t want them institutionalized.”
The camp’s walls are lined with murals explaining their right to play, go to school and have their basic needs met. The rehabilitation centre raises pet rabbits to help the child soldiers connect with another living being and to learn to be gentle.
They go to classes, get taken care of and get a chance to play and learn job skills. Art is used as therapy, said Ataman who marvelled at their greeting cards made out of banana leaves. “You can see how much talent there is.”
The camp also has a rudimentary music program. “Music was the only thing that got them involved,” he said.
In the fall, he’ll return with recording equipment and help the kids cut their tunes and become local rock stars. During his trip, the project won the support of camp officials. Local radio stations — the major medium in that part of the world — agreed to give the ex-soldiers’ songs airplay.
“I don’t know if you can ever get rid of your injuries,” he said of the youths’ emotional war wounds. “You can only try to get your hopes and dreams back. That would be amazing.”
Some kids who leave the safe haven see no future for themselves and return to their militia groups, he said. Ataman saw young people who had few skills or job opportunities hanging out in the poverty-stricken conflict zone.
The wealth from mining is leaving the country and not invested in its children. They’re Congo’s renewable resource whose potential is being squandered. “They’re extremely resilient and intelligent and the world’s missing out on that,” he said.
See original article here.