At eight years old, kids are usually thinking about what mom is making for dinner and how long they can get away with playing video games. 

Fazineh Keita's reality was much different growing up during the civil war in Sierra Leone.

Now living in Vancouver, Keita is reflecting on his past while trying to change the future for children in his native land. 

His charity, Innocence Lost Foundation, aims to help provide resources and rehabilitation services to former child soldiers and give kids a chance to be kids.

"What we want is to not only rehabilitate child soldiers or people who grew up as child soldiers, but we want to give them skills-training and therapy," said Keita.

"Our first project is a community centre ... We want to find a way to bring healing and bring these people back to society in a better way."

Life changing instant

Keita was eight when he was forced to become a child soldier during the decade long civil war that ravaged the country.

While staying with his uncle in the diamond-rich town of Tongo, Sierra Leone, rebels raided their home, forcing Keita to join their army of child soldiers.

An "indoctrination process" fed the children a philosophy that condemned their ancestors for not protecting the land and blamed subsequent generations for the famine and poverty facing the country.

"As a kid, it's easy to fall for that without realizing they're also exploiting us because they just want the diamonds," said Keita.

"After that indoctrination process they teach us how to clean an AK-47, dismantle it, put it back together and how to shoot it. That's about it. The rest they expect you to learn as you go."

During a raid on a nearby town, Keita grabbed a school uniform from one of the houses, while the others collected as much loot as they could carry in what they called "Operation Pay Yourself." 

He ran.

"When I ran, I changed from my saggy military pants and put on the school uniform and went to a military checkpoint."

He was able to make it back to Tongo, where he briefly joined the government's forces in order to survive in his uncle's absence.

When Keita's uncle returned, he was able to go back to school.

"After the war ended, with all the trauma I didn't know what to do. I remember one day I was walking around the street and there was so much destruction, all the houses burnt down … I didn't want to be part of that. I just wanted to get out," said Keita and he did.

Facing his childhood

He says he owes a lot of his recovery to his time at the Vancouver Film School, where an exercise helped him face his past after years of nightmares.

The students were seated across from an empty chair and told to put anyone they wanted in that space. Keita chose to put his eight-year-old self on the chair.

"It was like I'm facing this kid for the very first time and seeing the situation he was in, the things he had to do, a war he didn't start. That's the very first time I started forgiving myself, because I usually never even wanted to think about it," he said.

"After that process, I started accepting myself a little bit and now I am here."

The Innocence Lost Foundation will be raising funds for the community centre in Kabala, Sierra Leone with a benefit concert and silent auction this weekend.

The event, Trading a Gun for a Guitar, will be held at St. James Community Square at 6 p.m. PT, Sunday, Oct. 23.

With files from the CBC's On The Coast.


To hear the full interview listen to audio labelled Child soldier survivor creates foundation for change in Sierra Leone