A UNICEF child protection officer from Japan is helping child soldiers in the Central African Republic return to society and lead normal lives.

“We hope that they will return to being normal children and be allowed to play and laugh freely,” Ryoko Ogawa, 35, said during an interview in Tokyo.

The African nation has been mired in conflict between Muslim and Christian armed groups until recently, with about 10,000 children under 18 forced to serve as soldiers and others falling victim to abductions. But in a hopeful development, the two sides reached a cease-fire in early May and agreed to release their child soldiers.

“Many of the children at first show no emotion, but start displaying lively expressions several months later,” Ogawa said in describing the most rewarding aspects of her job at the U.N. Children’s Fund.

Children were forced to fight on the frontline and also had to transport goods or engage in spying, she said. Girls sometimes became victims of sexual assaults.

“We are trying to make them feel they can relax through sports, dancing and drawing,” she said.

After having worked for a travel agency and the Foreign Ministry, Tokyo-native Ogawa moved to the Central African Republic as a UNICEF child protection specialist in February 2014.

Her first experience of the country was being stranded at the airport after arrival as a gunfight raged nearby. “It felt like I had received a baptism of fire,” Ogawa said.

She decided on a career in humanitarian assistance for children during a visit as a university student to Croatia, where she met street children. Some were smoking while others were begging for money at a station at midnight. The East European country was still reeling at the time from the effects of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

“In Japan, I went to school and got a good education,” Ogawa said. “The same educational opportunities should be offered to children (in the Central African Republic) for the future of the country.”

Ogawa said she has become used to life in Africa but is still frightened by indigenous worms. For a change, she enjoys watching DVDs at home of comedy shows she brought from Japan.

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