|© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Townsend|
|A UNICEF team arrives at the base of the African Union observer group in El-Fasher, northern Darfur.|
By Dorn Townsend
EL-FASHER, Northern Darfur, May 2005 - The two young boys walked and hitchhiked all the way across the deserts of Darfur. When they arrived at Abu Shouk, a camp for people forced to flee their homes, it took some time for Koos van Rhyn to understand what was different about them: They yearned to be arrested.
Mr. van Rhyn, a South African police inspector, is stationed in Abu Shouk as a member of the African Union’s (AU) corps of civilian observers, who monitor safety inside Darfur’s sprawling camps. During his rounds, Mr. van Rhyn often finds children who have been orphaned, and informs UNICEF. The organization strives to reconnect these children with any living relatives.
But if being reconnected meant returning to Darfur’s war zones, then these two boys – aged 7 and 5 – preferred the safety of prison.
“The boys became so anxious to get away from Darfur that, right in front of police, one of them stole in the market,” explained Catherine Haswell, UNICEF Child Protection Officer for North Darfur. “One of the boys was reunited with an uncle, but before we could intervene, the younger boy was sent to a reformatory in Khartoum.”
The police officers who make up the African Union’s observer corps are accustomed to dealing with all kinds of situations back in their home countries. But many are surprised by how much of their time in Darfur is spent interacting with children. Children and young people make up the largest part of the population in Darfur’s camps.
In the Darfur crisis, children are the most vulnerable of all. Since October 2004 the African Union has been working together with UNICEF to assist children who have been caught up in the conflict.
One area of cooperation between the two organizations is the training of the civilian observers, such as Mr. van Rhyn. Before an observer is deployed, he or she receives training in children’s rights, based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The observers learn about how to communicate effectively with children while they carry out their duties, and how to act as monitors of children’s rights. In particular, the observers are instructed to be on the lookout for children who have been recruited into the army or into child labor.
So far over 150 civilian observers have completed training. Plans are underway to provide similar training for other civilians working in Darfur, and also to the African Union’s military observers.
“Our mandate is to keep an eye out so that monitoring is done more professionally”, said Daniel Asare, an African Union sector commander from Ghana. “UNICEF’s training has been helpful.”
The African Union/UNICEF collaboration is expanding to other areas. The civilian observers report to UNICEF any violations of children’s rights they witness in the camps. These reports are helping provide a clear picture of how all sides in the Darfur conflict have enlisted children into military service; recruitment of children is a violation of their internationally guaranteed rights. The reports are also helping UNICEF adapt its reintegration programs for former child soldiers.