Across the world tens of thousands of child soldiers are forced to join armies and rebel militias every year.
Vulnerable and exposed to atrocity, the experience is deeply scarring and traumatic for anyone involved.
This week a former child soldier from Thailand looks back at his time in the jungles along the Cambodian border in the early 1950s.
Our correspondent Kannikar Petchkaew has his story, and his extraordinary path to redemption.
Amporn’s mother died when he was just five years old. At the time, he didn’t even know what death was.
In his faded memory, there are two things that he remembers most – the way his mother always smelled of jasmine, and a lullaby she often sang.
Amporn’s father had died a year earlier and after his mother passed, he was left alone.
Orphaned, he started sleeping on the streets of Surin, a border town in northeast Thailand, begging and stealing to get by.
In 1951, at the age of 15, Amporn tried to escape the shame and indignity.
He followed a stranger he met at the wet market who told him how he could eat three meals a day.
That’s how Amporn ended up as a child soldier in the jungles that line the Thai-Cambodian border.
Young and desperate, he found himself fighting alongside the Cambodians, in their last ditch effort to defeat the French.
It was a decision Amporn says he felt forced to make.
“Fighting with others we don’t know, not our enemy, is something strange for us you know,” he says, “But because of the poverty and hardship I had to do it for my own survival.”
Now at the age of 80, Amporn is one of few former child soldiers from that time who is still alive.
Looking back he says the fighting was totally senseless.
“That’s no reason for me to go out and fight with others. It’s just a matter of necessity, for survival of my own life,” says Amporn, “That’s why I become a child soldier. We go out fight just for money. That’s it.”
When I met Amporn in Bangkok he told me he cried when he first killed.
But after a while, killings became part of his daily life. They were paid about $5 for each enemy soldier they killed.
“Yes we attacked people. I go to fight and we have to really fight and we would get the outcome you know,” he says, “How many people we can attacked, how many people wounded or how many we can killed and so forth… We killed people, unknown people for no reason at all.”
In Amporn’s unit there were 20 young boys. They patrolled day and night along the border with guns and knives, ready to attack.
Out there it was a different reality, says Amporn.
“I had no fear,” he says, “Especially when you get wounded, you just out there, just to kill. Mad dog you know?”
Like a wounded dog, Amporn left the jungle when the war was over.
Aged 17, he was severely damaged, both physically and mentally.
Today his arm doesn’t swing freely from injuries sustained in the jungle, and there are two bullets still embedded in his stomach.
But the physical pain was just one part. Amporn was haunted by nightmares and riddled with shame.
“I had no hope. I tried to commit suicide twice. Twice. The first time I tried to hang myself, later on I drank insecticide and was out for five days from midnight of Sunday to the bright of Friday,” he says.
Looking back Amporn says that young poor children with no guidance could easily be lured into the same nightmare.
“For these children you know, it’s very easy to lure them to the fighting. If they are in very hardship and they have nothing to eat and they have no progress and no income,” he says, “So the society has to understand their situation.”
It’s the reason that later in life Amporn was inspired to start the Foundation for the Rehabilitation & Development of Children and Family, or FORDEC, an organization working for poor children in Thailand.
Amporn used his retirement money to set up the fund, which provides education to thousands of orphans and poor children.
Illiterate when he left the jungle, Amporn struggled through his trauma and managed to go back to school.
He spent years working in a church library before making the switch to NGOs and eventually obtaining a master’s degree.
Getting an education changed his life, which is why he is committed to helping others in need.
“We always have to have hope in our life. The darkness and the light is all together,” he says, “This is the philosophy of life you have to find out by yourself and education is one if you don’t have social background… you don’t have money, education.”
Amporn’s nightmare is over, but not for other child soldiers who still fighting in the jungle somewhere.
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