Angelo was 13 when armed rebels kidnapped him in the pasture in front of his home while he tended the family's cattle. After three days of walking, he and other abducted children from his Mozambican village were given guns and trained to fight for the rebel army in its war against the government. His worst experience, he says, was during training when he was forced to carry a heavy sack of beans while crawling on the ground. Even though he was at the point of collapse from exhaustion, Angelo couldn't say anything because the rebels killed children who complained. Angelo spent the next six months guarding the base camp from attack before he escaped.
Angelo is just one of the estimated 30,000 child soldiers who fought for Renamo, Mozambique's rebel army, during the country's brutal civil war from 1977 to 1992. Many children like Angelo were snatched from their homes and families and taken to rebel camps, where they were trained to kill, torture, and rape people in neighboring villages, and sometimes even in their own.
Whether they were abducted by Renamo, or volunteered to fight, by the time the war was over, fully a quarter of the country's soldiers were under the age of 18 or had begun fighting as children.
Mozambique's situation is not unique; 350,000 child soldiers are fighting in conflicts around the world. In the Democratic Republic of Congo today, fully 60 percent of the soldiers in the numerous armies being disbanded are under 18.
What does the future hold for these children as they grow into adults, if a large part of their formative years were spent wielding a machine gun or a machete? Practitioners in the field have expressed two opinions. One view is that the child soldiers are "the lost generation" future terrorists or monsters in training. The other view contends these children may be more resilient and may be able to leave their violent ways behind as they build new lives. But in truth, no one knows what kinds of adults they grow up to be.
To attempt to find out, researchers from the Mailman School of Public Health traveled in the past year to remote villages in Mozambique, tracking down former child soldiers, including some who participated in government re-education programs, to see how they turned out and if the re-education programs did any good.
Despite initial fears that they may encounter monsters and terrorists, the researchers are finding that these soldiers, now in their mid- to late-20s, have been able to slip back into normal life.
"I'm relatively amazed at their ability to move on," says the project's director, Dr. Neil Boothby, associate professor in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health in the Mailman School. "They have signs of post-traumatic stress disorders, and there are moments when the young men go back in the past and relive these events in their minds. But despite this, the vast majority are good parents, their kids get more schooling than the norm, and they're well thought of by their neighbors."
The key to this success, it seems, is acceptance of the former child soldiers by the community. And in the case of Mozambique, gaining that acceptance turned out to be easier than initially believed.
In 1988 the Mozambican government, with the help of Save the Children, set up a rehabilitation center for 40 child soldiers but warned the group that the children could never be sent home because no one would want them. "But in talking to the communities, we found the opposite," says Dr. Boothby, who works for Save the Children and helped direct the Mozambique efforts. "The community said, They are our sons, of course we want them back.'"
Before the soldiers from the rehab center were returned, Save the Children traveled to villages in the south to find each soldier's relatives and make sure the community was ready to receive them. Apprenticeships in the village were set up for the children, and workers made sure each child was paired with a godparent to look after him, just as in traditional Mozambican families. Rehab center workers kept tabs on the children until about 1992.
Last summer, Dr. Boothby and Jennifer Crawford, a project coordinator, began returning to these same villages to track down about 80 former child soldiers, half of whom spent time in the Lhanguene Rehabilitation Center in the capital, Maputo, before going back home.
In the villages, the researchers became detectives, showing 15-year-old snapshots of the boys to local farmers and residents until someone pointed them in the right direction. Ms. Crawford and others interviewed the man, his children, and his neighbors after finding the former soldiers.
"What surprises me most is their capacity as caring, loving parents," Ms. Crawford says. "Some of the men played with their children's hair throughout an almost three-hour interview. They say that since they didn't get this type of love and attention as a child, they're determined to provide it for their own children. This was not only apparent in their actions toward their children, but also in their determination to provide a better life for them."
The team even ran into Angelo, now 30, who has become a successful photographer in South Africa. Angelo just happened to be home in Mozambique for the weekend visiting his wife and young daughter.
But not everybody turned out so well. One boy who became a youth leader during his time in Renamo never gave up his old ways and was killed in a clash with local police; another became abusive to those around him.
"The men having more problems, whether they're from the Llangeune group or not, perceive that the community doesn't accept them," Dr. Boothby says. These findings are significant, because they are the only data available on the lives of former child soldiers.
"The world is spending hundreds of millions of dollars reintegrating these kids back into their communities," he says, "and we need to know what works."