Orphaned and forced to live on the streets at just 5, Amporn Wathanavong had a miserable childhood, and was lured to fight in the jungles along the Cambodian border. But he ultimately got an education and founded an organization to help poor orphans.
BANGKOK — 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. Amporn Wathanavong, a former child soldier from Thailand, knows this first-hand from his time in the jungles along the Cambodian border in the early 1950s.
His mother died when he was just 5 years old. At the time, he didn't even know what death was. What he remembers most about her is that she always smelled of jasmine and that she sang him a familiar lullaby.
Wathanavong's father had died a year earlier, and after his mother passed he was left alone. Orphaned, he began 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, Wathanavong tried to escape the shame and indignity. He followed a stranger he met who told him how he could eat three meals a day. That's how he 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 Wathanavong says he felt forced to make. "Fighting with others we don't know, not our enemy, is something strange for us," he says. "But because of the poverty and hardship, I had to do it for my own survival."
Wathanavong is now 80, one of very few child soldiers from that time who is still alive. Looking back, he says the fighting was totally senseless. "There was no reason for me to go out and fight with others," he says. "It was just a matter of necessity, for survival of my own life. We went out to fight just for money. That's it."
During an interview in Bangkok, he cried recalling the first time he first killed someone. 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," he says. "We killed people, unknown people, for no reason at all."
There were 20 young boys in Wathanavong's unit, who patrolled day and night along the border with guns and knives, ready to attack.
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Like a wounded dog, Wathanavong left the jungle when the war was over. By age 17, he was severely damaged, both physically and mentally.
Today his arm doesn't swing freely because of injuries sustained in the jungle, and there are two bullets still embedded in his stomach. But the physical pain represents just part of the damage. Wathanavong was haunted by nightmares and riddled with shame.
"I had no hope," he says now. "I tried to commit suicide twice. The first time I tried to hang myself. Later on, I drank insecticide and was out for five days."
Wathanavong says that young poor children with no guidance can easily be recruited into the same kind of nightmare. "For these children, you know, it's very easy to lure them to the fighting. If they are in hardship and they have nothing to eat and they have no progress and no income. Society has to understand their situation."
That's why Wathanavong started the Foundation for the Rehabilitation & Development of Children and Family, or FORDEC, an organization working for poor children in Thailand. He used his retirement money to create the fund, which provides education to thousands of orphans and poor children.
Illiterate when he left the jungle, Wathanavong 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 earning 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," he says. "The darkness and the light is all together. This is the philosophy of life you have to find out by yourself."
Wathanavong's nightmare is over, but those of other child soldiers now fighting in the jungle somewhere are just beginning.