PARIS – When his mother, father and two brothers were killed in Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s, 13-year-old Ishmael Beah turned to the only place he knew for comfort: an armed faction.
"I didn't know what to do with my life. One minute I had a family and the next, I didn't have anyone," said Beah, who unlike thousands of others managed to escape his life as a child soldier.
What remains now mostly are scars of living through such violence.
"Taking a gun and shooting someone was as easy as drinking a glass of water," Beah, now 26, told participants at a conference in Paris on Monday on rehabilitating child soldiers and singling out nations where they are recruited.
The United Nations estimates that about 250,000 children younger than 18 years old are involved in about a dozen conflicts today around the world. Often they are used not only as fighters, but as messengers, spies, porters and to provide sexual services.
Like many underage fighters, Beah said he "was looking for safety and was recruited because of that." After serving in an armed group for two years, Beah went through a rehabilitation program in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown.
"No one is born violent. No child in Africa, Latin America or Asia wants to be part of war," said Beah, who lives in New York City and has written a forthcoming memoir about his experiences.
Representatives of at least 58 countries and a host of non-governmental organizations joined the two-day conference, sponsored by UNICEF and France's Foreign Ministry, to develop strategies to prevent the recruitment of children and reintegrate former child soldiers into society.
They are "lost children, lost for peace and lost for the development of their countries," said French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy. "It is essential to prove to these children, these young people that another life is possible."
The Paris conference is also aiming to help girls, who account for nearly 40 percent of recruits in certain armed groups and are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuses, organizers said.
"The girl child is often forced to play multiple roles in the conflict: She is often sex slave, mother and combatant at the same time," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, U.N. Special Representative for children and armed conflicts.
Girls, often the victims of discrimination and stigma, are frequently rejected by their families and have an especially hard time returning to civil society.
Donor nations like Norway, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States are present at the conference, as are countries like Colombia, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child soldiers are thought to fight.
The international community has been trying for about two decades to tackle this problem. This week's conference was aimed at giving governments, aid groups and educators the most specific tools yet to do so.
An estimated 95,000 former child soldiers have taken part in recent demobilization programs in countries from Asia to Latin America, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Liberia.
Beah went through such a program. He lived in a rehabilitation home in Freetown and was later sent to New York to speak about his experiences at a United Nations conference. There Beah met Laura Simms, a professional storyteller who later became his adopted mother.
Beah attended Oberlin College in Ohio, getting his B.A. in Political Science in 2004. He has written a book, "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," which is to be published later this month.
Not all recovery efforts work out as well. Often, the psychological support and technical training prove too little, too late, said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah.
"In Sudan, we are finding out that children we thought were successfully reinserted were not" and have resumed fighting, Salah told The Associated Press. This is not an isolated phenomenon, she said.
Beah stressed the need to invest in long-term programs that allow children the time to recover from the psychological trauma of the war zone.
"Recovery's not a one, two, three step program. It's a continuous process," said Beah, who said he still suffers from flashbacks of his two years as a fighter.
"It is the most difficult thing to regain your humanity," he said, adding, "I'm living proof that it's possible."
Another hope for combating the use of child soldiers are the courts.
Last week, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, ordered Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga to be tried for allegedly recruiting child soldiers and sending them to kill and be killed in a bloody tribal conflict. The court, set up in 2002, has expanded its definition of war crimes to include the drafting of children under age 15 into armed conflict.
Beah called on participants to send a strong message that the international community will no longer tolerate the use of child combatants.
"When we meet again, I do not want to have this conversation again. I want to see concrete things being done and I don't want to see excuses," Beah said.