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How A Former Child Soldier Turned His Life Around & Helped Others Escape The Same Fate

Photo: Courtesy of Amporn Wathanavongs.
Dr. Amporn Wathanavongs as a teenager in Thailand. After surviving his time in the jungle as a child soldier, he went on to found an organization to help other children.
Around the world, children are being recruited and coerced into joining armed groups. According to Human Rights Watch, child soldiers are fighting in at least 14 countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, and Thailand.

An estimated 40% of those child soldiers are girls, according to nonprofit organisation War Child. Some are forced to become sex slaves by groups like the Islamic State group and Boko Haram. War Child also notes that children, in addition to fighting in combat roles, are forced to serve as porters, cooks, and spies.

The children, often recruited from poor neighbourhoods, coerced into joining armed groups, or volunteered by their families, are robbed of the opportunity to receive an education. Some are forced to commit acts of violence against family members or neighbours as a way to prove their loyalty and ensure that they cannot return to their communities.

Amporn Wathanavongs, PhD, was one of those children. After being orphaned at the age of 5, Dr. Wathanavongs struggled to feed himself on the streets of Thailand. At the age of 15, he was lured into the jungle to fight with an armed group and exploited with the promise of easy money, meals, and a place to sleep. By the time he was able to leave the jungle at the age of 17, he had never learned to read or write.

After fighting to get his own education, he dedicated the rest of his life to helping children like him.

Author Chantal Jauvin met Dr. Wathanavongs in 2010 while visiting his Foundation for Rehabilitation and Development of Children and Family in Thailand with her now-husband. Inspired by his life story, she decided to write a book about him, even as she battled ovarian cancer. Published this spring, The Boy with a Bamboo Heart details his journey.

Jauvin and Dr. Wathanavongs sat down with Refinery29 to discuss the problem of child soldiers around the world, and what can be done to help keep children off the streets and away from violence.

When I was a child soldier, I did not think much about the consequences. We were doing something to make a living, to survive, to buy food, and to buy some clothes.

Dr. Amporn Wathanavongs, former child soldier
What was your own experience as a boy soldier like?
Dr. Amporn Wathanavongs: "When they first approached me, they made me think that there was work available for us in the jungle, and I followed them. [They said] this work had to be done, but first we would go to training. They said, 'Okay, if you do this, then you get paid, and your future will be better than what you live now.' As a boy, I did not have any alternative except to accept their offer for the future. But then I went there, and the life [was] different. It was difficult, but we had no way out, and we had no alternative."

What was your daily life like as a child soldier?
AW: "When I was a child soldier, I did not think much about the consequences. We were doing something to make a living, to survive, to buy food, and to buy some clothes. But when we realised it was not what we really wanted, it was too late to return.

"Many times, you feel sorry…Then everything happened that we had to fight — to kill or to be killed. So we got mad, and we got injured. We had to survive, and this is why we had to defeat others."
What kind of violence did you see as a child soldier, and how did that make you feel?
AW: "My old life and my new life had no difference…We did not recognise the difference [between] the violence or the peace. Before we became soldiers…every day we had to think about whether we were going to live tomorrow, if there would be food tomorrow, and what happens the day after, and so forth. But in the jungle, it’s different. We saw that we get paid for [work], but again, our consequences were different. You go out and fight for an unknown reason, and there's no reason at all but to win, and to destroy what we called the enemy."
Chantal, how did you meet the doctor, and why did you choose to write his story?
Chantal Jauvin: "I met Dr. Amporn in March of 2010 when I was on a visit to Thailand with my then-fiancé, who is now my husband. He had been sponsoring children with Dr. Amporn’s charity for many years, and of course I wanted to meet them. On the day that I went to visit, two little girls that were in school that day asked the staff if we could leave the school grounds and they could show me their homes [in Bangkok].

"As we walked out…the little girls were the cleanest they could be, in their little uniforms, happy. But what they brought me to was mountains of garbage and real poverty. Their houses were literally a floor, four bedroom poles, and roof made out of blue tarp. There’s such a dichotomy to see the joy of these children and yet the dire situations in which they lived.

"After the walk, we went back to the school for lunch, and that’s where I met Dr. Amporn. Over lunch, he started telling me his story, and the more I listened and I thought of the children that were playing next to us, the more I realised the importance of the story to be told.

"I just believe that education is really the hope for the future for any country. To see that Dr. Amporn had lived in even worse circumstances than those kids and that he was able to do what he’s done with his life, I just thought, The world has to know about this. He asked me to write his story at that lunch, and I said yes. That became basically a four-year project of research and interviews."
Was it hard to share this story?
CJ: "Dr. Amporn's years as a boy soldier are a painful part of his life, as you’ve heard, and we didn’t talk about that in the first two years of our interviews.

"Dr. Amporn has a hand that’s very damaged from his time in the jungle; it was damaged by a grenade. I knew that he was injured, but I hadn’t addressed why his hand had been injured until he started telling me about his time in the jungle. Then he showed me the five scars he has…from bullets he took to the stomach. And it took us probably about six months before Dr. Amporn agreed that we could write about that time in his life.

AW: "My life has involved passing through many difficulties. I survived malaria, I survived being an orphan, I survived being a boy soldier, and I even survived a bomb…I value my salvation because of the education I received. So I was thinking about what happens to the other children who have the same difficulties as me. I had to do something to help them. This is my whole devotion and my whole work: We have to help others who have no opportunity for survival and let them know that there is a way to raise ourselves up."
How big of a problem is the use of children as soldiers around the world, and what needs to be done to end it?
CJ: "My understanding is that more than 14 countries around the world currently have boy soldiers, ranging from Afghanistan to Côte d'Ivoire to Myanmar. In the current struggles with ISIS, CNN and other news sources are reporting surges in the recruitment of boy soldiers.

"These are very vulnerable boys. There seems to be a number of scenarios: One is where the boys are outright kidnapped…Another is like Dr. Amporn's. He was facing such poverty and vulnerability that it’s not an educated choice. These are boys that are being recruited and signing up for the armed forces, not knowing what they’re walking into. These are children who are desperate to eat, children who have no parents, children that are sick…They’re just desperate to survive, and when an adult comes along and says, 'Come work in the jungle, you’ll get paid,' it’s alluring, and they’re victims of their innocence."

AW: "The best way that we have to help children in difficult circumstances is to care for them, to give them love and to give them opportunity for education and for physical survival…If we cannot do anything to prevent them from being kidnapped or being recruited, then we have to help them in other ways. Every person has to get together to help them get an education, to give them care, to give them love. If everyone gives 1 or 2 cents to a child, I think we will get enough help for those children who do not have any other means to live."
Chantal, how has meeting Dr. Amporn and writing his story inspired you? What has he taught you?
CJ: "Meeting Dr. Amporn and writing his story for me is just a complete affirmation that no matter the obstacles, the struggles, the demons we face in life, we have the power within us to reach deeper and to survive first…then help others around us. "

"There’s a parallel to our stories because, while writing the book, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I remember interviewing Dr. Amporn and I had lost all my hair after treatment. It was inspiring to me because I kept thinking, If Dr. Amporn could survive malaria, poverty, being an orphan alone, certainly I, with all the medical care that I have, can overcome my trauma of cancer.

"And it was inspiring to write about: We focused on all the dark parts of his life, but then he went on and he helped others. There’s a point to his life, and his point was not to be locked in the jungle and dying and being an orphan; the point to his life was to become the philanthropist and the caregiver that he is to all these children.

"It was a huge reaffirming light for me as I had my own struggle that, no matter what, we can contribute. My contribution hopefully to Dr. Amporn is spreading his story so that others know."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.