Smiling from the back of a pick-up truck careering through Bangui, a child no older than ten clutches a rifle, struggling to stay upright in his freshly-pressed uniform.
It's a familiar scene in the Central African capital, where demobilised child soldiers hoping to find their families and start a different kind of life regularly arrive at specialist centres run by western charities.
According to UN figures, 3 500 children under the age of 18 are members of the country's various armed groups, many of whom joined the ranks of the Seleka rebels who overthrew President Francois Bozize in March.
“I joined the rebellion because Bozize killed too many Muslims! It was revenge!” said 17-year-old Moussa, a veteran of four years of fighting, at a complex run by Italian humanitarian group Coopi on the outskirts of Bangui.
“They killed my uncle,” Moussa added, showing off a scar from a bullet that hit him in the calf during the rebels' assault on the capital.
Fear still stalks this largely lawless country, where rebel gangs attack women, kill men and recruit children as fighters.
“The main problem is the total absence of any authority,” a bishop, Albert Vanbeul, living in a town north of the capital, told AFP in July.
Coopi's centre has welcomed 150 children and teenagers so far, the youngest of whom was just 12.
They are often regular abusers of drugs such as the painkiller Tramadol, and are used as messengers, bodyguards, cooks and as fighters, according to Rodolphe Mbale, head of child protection at Coopi.
“They are good soldiers because they have no sense of danger, they are brave and obedient. They are often on the front line,” he said.
A few kilometres away, Delphin, 17, sits on the ground with his back against a brick wall. He lives in a centre that had taken in street children but has expanded to welcome returning child soldiers.
Looking at smiling photos of himself and his best friend, who joined a rebel group because they were hungry, he recalls his brief training.
“We learnt to lock and load,” Delphin said, admitting that he joined voluntarily. Then it was straight to the front.
“I was a soldier; I had a rifle,” he added, brandishing photos of his Kalashnikov. “I killed a Faca (soldier in the regular army) when we took Bangui. I saw him and I fired. I went to check afterwards, and he was definitely dead,” he said impassively.
Delphin made it out alive, but his brother-in-arms was not so lucky. During the attack on Bangui, he was shot and killed by a South African helicopter in the army's vain attempt to help defend President Bozize.
The death of Delphin's friend is the type of incident that South African soldiers struggle to forget.
“It was only after the firing had stopped that we saw we had killed kids. We did not come here for this... to kill kids. It makes you sick. They were crying calling for help... calling for their mums,” a paratrooper told South Africa's Sunday Times newspaper in March.
Again, hunger drove Delphin, this time to the Coopi centre where he laid down his rifle for good. He now hopes to become a fashion designer.
Kicking a football in the suffocating heat of Central Africa's rainy season, the 50 youths running around the Coopi centre seem like any others their age.
But Mbale said their apparently carefree attitude disguised the problems of adapting to normal life after the atrocities many were forced to commit.
“The first few weeks are difficult. They don't trust adults and they are often extremely aggressive with each other... the adults teach them to do as they do, including to rape.”
For these children, who were already on the street, armed and employed by the government to man roadblocks even before Bozize's downfall, life now has a semblance of normality once again.
They have returned to their old habits: begging and handing out menu leaflets in the market. Until, that is, hunger forces them back to fighting. - Sapa-AFP
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