Germany is one of the world's largest arms exporters, especially for small arms. But in crisis areas, many of these land in the hands of children who are exploited as soldiers.
"We were mostly deployed for attacks," said Michael D., a former child solider now living in Berlin. "We were often the first to be sent into combat and had to dodge the flurry of bullets."
As a young boy, Michael was forced to become a soldier in his home country, Sierra Leone, where he fought against rebel forces for five years. Thousands of boys and girls just like him were hauled away between 1991 and 2001to fight on both sides during the civil war in the West African country.
"The children were lured away from their parents or kidnapped from school," Michael said at a press conference in commemoration of Red Hand Day, which annually draws attention to child soldiers.
Young people, he said, were forced to fight in a war they knew nothing about. "We were made compliant with drugs and alcohol," he said.
Kids on the front line
Michael was able to escape. He fled to Germany via the Ivory Coast and France, and was accepted to the country 13 years ago. Today, he lives in Bremen and is engaged in the battle against the abuse of children as soldiers.
"Worldwide, more than 250,000 children as used as soldiers," said Antje Weber, a child rights expert with the child emergency relief organization Kindernothilfe. The children are fighters, messengers, cooks and spies, she said. They are often sexually abused and suffer a lifetime of psychological and physical consequences.
Michal was lucky. A teacher became aware of him because of his extremely aggressive behavior and turned to a relief organization for help. Michael received therapy and learned how to deal with his war trauma.
Only a few of the many child soldiers ever manage to escape. In 2012, Germany accepted 4,300 adolescent refugees who came to the country on their own. Between 100 and 150 of them were believed to be child soldiers. It is possible that they did their fighting with German weapons.
Second only to the Kalashnikov
The G3 automatic rifle manufactured by the German company Heckler & Koch, for instance, was used in the bloody civil war in Sierra Leone. It is second only to the Kalashnikov as the most widely used assault rifle in the world. The manufacturer is now producing a top selling successor to that rifle, the G36, which weights only 3.6 kilos. It is a standard weapon of the German military, the Bundeswehr, but also surfaces in crisis regions.
"Because of its extremely light weight, the rifle is particularly well suited for children," said Weber.
Andrew Feinstein is an expert on the topic of global arms trade and author of the book "The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade." In the 800-page book, the South African wrote about the clients, the masterminds and the profiteers.
"Heckler & Koch employs only about 700 workers, but it is one of the deadliest companies in Europe," Feinstein said in Berlin. Guns manufactured by the company are estimated to kill up to 100 people per day, according to Ralf Willinger of the Terre des Hommes international relief agency.
According to the German government's arms export report, Germany approved the export of 66,955 small arms in 2012 - more than ever before.
Quagmire of corruption
"German arms exports are stuck in a quagmire of corruption and kickbacks with extremely close ties between the arms manufacturers, dealers, the government, politicians and political parties," said Feinstein. He admitted that his attempts to investigate an arms deal between the South African government and German arms manufacturer were in vain.
At the time, Feinstein was a member of the governing African National Congress (ANC) in parliament in Pretoria. His research work was rejected and, in 2001, he resigned his position in protest over lack of transparency in the arms trade.
"We had spent $10 billion [7.36 billion euros] on weapons we didn't need and haven't used up to this very day," he said. At the same time, he added, the government denied life-saving drugs to the country's nearly 6 million HIV and AIDs patients, citing tight budgets. As a result, a reported 365,000 people died.
Politicians, bureaucrats and parties in South Africa, including the ANC, have benefitted handsomely from arms trading, according to Feinstein. He said his research shows more than $300 million in bribes have exchanged hands.
Germany is now considered to be the world's third largest arms exporter. One of the country's biggest customers is Saudi Arabia. In 2012, German approved arms sales worth 1.2 billion euros to the Gulf state, which buys rifles such as the G36 in addition to heavier artillery.
Interest in German panzers and submarines
Recently, Riyadh launched its own G36 arms production. It built a complete production facility with approval from the German government.
Saudi Arabia is also interested purchasing German Leopard 2 tanks and submarines. Currently, the country is in talks to buy 33 patrol boats in a deal that would be protected by government export credit guarantees.
German Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel defends the plan. The Saudi Arabian government would use the boats, he said, to secure borders and not on its own people.
Feinstein disagreed. Armaments, he said, can be quickly converted and used for purposes other than border security. Moreover, the buyers typically have no influence over the whereabouts of the weapons, which could be passed on to other countries and rebels.
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