Jef Vermassen: relieving the horror of child soldiers

Aurélie Van Wonterghem & Freija Poot
28 September 2018
Top Belgian lawyer Jef Vermassen has been devoted to child soldiers in Uganda via the non-profit organisation (vzw) Child Soldiers for years and years. How does the organisation manage to help the severely traumatised children to lead a normal life again? interviewed Vermassen for a brief explanation.

You have been devoted to child soldiers for many years. Why is this problem so important to you?

I was president of the student union during my final year of law school in Leuven. I gave a speech at the degree ceremony in which I said the following: ‘We are all university students sponsored by the authorities, and in return we should give something back to society.’ What I meant by that was: stand up for the weak. Besides my law degree, I also studied criminology; my dissertation explored delinquency among minors. So I have always thrown myself into the breach when injustice is done to minors. When I then saw that child soldiers were murderers under duress, I wanted to do something about that. I always say: if you want to make tomorrow's society better, you need to help the children of today.

That impulse was further reinforced during my journey to Uganda. The north and south of Uganda live in separate communities: the south is safe, but the north was perilous territory for many years. So we took a great risk in visiting North Uganda. On one evening we heard the gunfire of child soldiers who were trying to overrun our hotel, but then decided not to do so in the end. That was the first time I myself was confronted with child soldiers who were being compelled to attack and commit murder. Those children were all victims, I had to help them (see box ‘Joseph Kony’).

"When I then saw that child soldiers were murderers under duress, I wanted to do something about that. I always say: if you want to make tomorrow's society better, you need to help the children of today."

Jef Vermassen

Portrait of Jef Vermassen
© Thomas Vanhaute

How did you become involved with Child Soldiers vzw?

I began development cooperation work in Africa at quite a young age. After a fact-finding trip to Congo, or Zaïre as it then was, a few friends and I in Idiofa (DR Congo) raised money to build a hospital in the nearby town of Kikwit. That was my first project.

After that I was invited to Niger to start up the ‘Niet wikken maar wegen (Weigh it up)’ initiative in the capital Niamey. By weighing the children, we informed their mothers of the negative effect that manioc could have on their babies and we offered alternative foods such as rice.

Els De Temmerman, founder of Child Soldiers vzw, contacted me in 2005 to ask if I would like to be involved in her project. I took this on enthusiastically as I lost my heart to Africa and wanted to dedicate myself to children's rights there. Before I knew it, I was chairman of the non-profit organisation. I did that for about ten years. Time constraints meant I had to step back from that role, but I am still patron of the organisation. That means I continue to follow the child soldiers situation in Uganda and still attend some meetings.

In my most recent project, we set up the largest girls' school in Tanzania.


How do the children find their way to Child Soldiers vzw?

Some are able to flee the army during a battle and then end up in refugee camps, which is where eighty percent of the North Ugandan population were living in the 2000s (see box). Most of the children cannot seek shelter with family or other villagers because they were forced to kill them. The survivors see the children as traitors and murders. They can even be in danger from their own family or others known to them. This is why the Ugandan government army brings the children to the Child Soldiers' rehabilitation centre.


What kind of help can the escaped children count on at the Child Soldiers' rehabilitation centre?

They stay with us at our rehabilitation centre in North Uganda for four to six months. Ex-child soldiers are the ones to receive the new ones upon arrival, which is a great advantage.  In many cases the children will already know someone else at the centre, having got to know each other in the rebel forces. This leads to an immediate bond. Even if they know no-one else, they will meet other ex-child soldiers there with the same experiences, which they can talk about together.

The first step when the children arrive is: eating. The army taught the child soldiers that, even if they did escape, the staff at the centre would poison them. So someone else always has to eat with them the first time. The second step is tending to their wounds. The children will have been walking barefoot through the bush, which will cause serious injury to their legs and feet. We also tend to any wounds sustained during battle, operating if necessary. We even had a girl flown out to Belgium for plastic surgery, as the damage to her mouth was so severe.

The first evening after they arrive, we burn their old clothes, which takes place in a group. It is a symbolic gesture to indicate that their life as a child soldier is now over. The therapy begins from that point on. Every child is assigned an individual mentor who is always available to them.

We have the children talk as much as possible about their experiences during the group activities. We do this by means of the drawings and paintings that they make, to allow their emotions free reign. Talking is of the utmost importance. We once had a little boy whose parents came to pick him up immediately, without getting any therapy. He is now catatonic, as though he was turned to stone and no longer speaks because he was never able to process his traumas. Additionally, we have a drama group where the children can act out their experiences. They do this in the many refugee camps, which get to hear the true story of what happened to them in the army in this way. Thereby, the audience no longer see the children purely as murderers and animosity is turned to solidarity.

Drawing in which a child expresses its experiences a a child soldier
© vzw Kindsoldaten

What happens after six months at the centre?

After six months, we prepare the children to re-integrate into society. Some go on to study. Those who are mentally and emotionally unable to go to school, learn a trade such as sewing or baking bread. In this way, they can get their lives back on track and earn money. Even once the children have left the centre, there are regular check-ups to see if everything is going well and whether they are able to lead a normal life again.


What happens to the children who are not able to flee?

The Ugandan government announced in mid-2004 that, if the army leaders gave themselves up, they would be offered amnesty (= they would not be punished). Many children were released at that point. So some were freed, some died in the army, and some of the child soldiers may have remained in Kony's army in Sudan or in other countries.


Is there any chance of addressing the causes? And thereby ensuring that children do not end up in the army?

That would be difficult. We did meet with the President of Uganda a few times and suggested that Kony be arrested, but he avoided the subject. One time we were very close to catching him. Kony had retreated into Congo and we knew exactly where he was hiding. Els said to the UN commander: ‘We know where Kony is, there is an international arrest warrant, go and get him.’ To which the commander replied: ‘That is not a priority.’ There were 18,000 UN soldiers in Kampala, but they did nothing. They had helicopters, planes and suchlike, but they took no action.

They did carry out some attacks, but Kony was always able to escape. Sometimes you do wonder: do they actually want to arrest him? Kony was a political football between Uganda and its neighbouring countries. Maybe it was in the interests of those countries to keep that going. Kony was finally driven out of the country by a collaboration between Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. So he can no longer recruit any new Ugandan children, which has lowered the number of child soldiers there.

Drawing in which a child expresses its experiences a a child soldier
© vzw Kindsoldaten

Of the thousands of children we have rescued, only ten of them have ended up in a gang of thieves, three of which went on to kill again.

What kind of financial support does the non-profit organisation receive?

The organisation used to receive financial support from the Belgian federal government when Louis Michel was the Foreign Secretary. It paid for building the centre. We have good contacts within the Ugandan authorities but we receive no funding from them. We can always count on the Ugandan government forces though.

In financial terms, we mainly work through sponsorship money. Thanks to the book Aboke Girls by Els De Temmerman, the non-profit organisation gained awareness within the public at large. Child soldiers are a silent drama that touches people's hearts. The sponsoring system works as follows. You can adopt a child by paying a limited sum of money, which allows the child to live and study. In return, the adoptive parents are sent photos and documentary material including school grades, so they find out more about how the child is doing.


Are the children able to lead a normal life afterwards? Do they manage to overcome their traumas? What are the success stories?

There are many success stories, but the fact that the majority of the children do make it, is largely due to the African way of life.

To begin with, mainly the stronger children survive, with the weaker ones very sadly perishing in battle. So the survivors already have a greater chance of overcoming the traumas. Africans are also possessed of a real survival instinct; they are happy to have got out of the army alive. This forms a strong motivation to work through the traumas. Of the thousands of children we have rescued, only ten of them have ended up in a gang of thieves, three of which went on to kill again.

All the profits from my first book, Murderers and their motives, were donated to charities. Naturally part of this went to Child Soldiers vzw. This money was used by the cleverest twenty children from the centre to study at the University of Kampala. One ex-child soldier is now running a nature reserve, while another is a nurse. There was even a girl who is now the secretary for the Ugandan President's wife. Another girl is now a lawyer. She helps other ex-child soldiers to resolve their problems.


How do you see the future of the non-profit organisation?

Once all the children at the centre have finished their studies, the organisation will wind down. After all, the problem in Uganda has more or less stabilised now. In the meantime, the non-profit organisation will continue to work with the children who have since left the centre and found their way back into the recovering Ugandan society.

Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)


The rebels in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have been waging war in North Uganda under rebel leaders Joseph Kony since 1986. He wanted to overthrow the government and run the country in accordance with the Ten Commandments. Because most of the population would not join the rebels willingly, they kidnapped many children and drafted them in as soldiers by force. The World Bank estimates that, since the start of the conflict, around 66,000 boys and girls were kidnapped to fight in the rebel army. These are, after all, the best kind of soldiers. Children are easy to mould, do not turn against their leader and are nimble during battle. Kony also saw the children as cannon fodder and would place them on the front lines. Besides that, they were tortured, abused and murdered en masse.

Reintegration of child solders: a Belgian priority


The reintegration of child solders is one of the priorities of Belgium’s foreign policy. Our country plays a leading role on this issue and wants to keep it on the international agenda. Belgium is also an important contributor to UNICEF’s Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism which collects reliable information on serious violations of children’s rights in situations of conflict. Our country also co-organised a high-level event in New York on the reintegration of child soldiers in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (September 2018). The Minister of Foreign Affairs Reynders moderated the event and Queen Mathilde spoke in her capacity as UN Advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Children Conflict Uganda
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