Central African Republic

UNICEF aids release of children from rebel forces in Central African Republic

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF CAR/2007/Holtz
A young boy in Gordil, northern CAR, at the blackboard of a primary school that UNICEF helped to reopen as part of a reintegration programme for children released by rebel forces.

By Emily Bamford

GORDIL, Central African Republic, 2 August 2007 – “When I shot them I felt dizzy and passed out,” recalls Ahmed, a soldier who claims he is 16, though he looks much younger.

Dressed in a khaki combat gear and adorned with jewellery, the young boy smiles and says he spent three years with the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), the main rebel group in the northern Central African Republic (CAR). Until recently, he had been fighting government troops in the area.

Originally from a town almost 100 miles away, Ahmed left his school and family to become a soldier. He now resides in the rebel army barracks – but not for much longer. He has just finished practicing the march for a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration ceremony and says he’s looking forward to it.

A sense of hope at last

The whole town is set to attend the celebration. Despite the midday heat, the women are singing and dancing. Dressed in colourful fabrics, they practice the songs they’ve chosen to perform for the occasion. 

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF CAR/2007/Holtz
A boy of Birao, CAR, shows worn cartridges he found in the streets where he played.

There’s already excitement in the air and a real sense of hope in a community that has long suffered the ills one of Africa’s most forgotten emergencies, the prolonged conflict in CAR.

With the encouragement of UNICEF, the rebel force has agreed to release all child soldiers for reintegration into their communities. UNICEF will assist the youths and their families with a mix of protection, prevention and advocacy against future recruitment. 

Lingering nightmares

Ahmed gets up to chat with some of his many friends. Like the other boys in the rebels’ ranks, he struts with a certain confidence, like a man double his age. Up close, however, he is shy, occasionally stuttering and nervous as he speaks to UNICEF staff.

“Whenever I sleep, I have nightmares. I see the headless corpses of the men I killed,” he whispers while fidgeting with his shoelaces. Ahmed says he has killed “just two soldiers.” For others, this number is much higher.

But many of the children associated with the UFDR don’t carry arms. Instead, they assist rebels and help maintain the camp. This is particularly true for girls, who are the least visible and most vulnerable of all the children in the rebels’ ranks. UNICEF is working to identify and assist them.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF CAR/2007/Holtz
UNICEF staff members interview a teenager allegedly associated with the rebel Union of Democratic Forces for Unity in Mele village, north of Gordil, CAR.

A seductive alternative

In some cases, the rebel army provides children with what they see as an exciting opportunity and much-needed financial support for their families here in poverty-stricken and insecure Vakaga province. It can be a seductive alternative to school or a difficult home life – a chance for freedom and responsibility.

“The army has given me a chance to support myself,” says Modest, 14.

Perched on the edge of a tree stump, clutching his Kalashnikov, Modest is less excited about the demobilization ceremony than Ahmed. While he’s eager to be reunited with his family (his mother currently lives in a refugee camp in Chad, his father in the CAR capital, Bangui), Modest says the rebels provided him with protection and education.

Reclaiming childhood

Modest adds that he wants to join the national armed forces. Ahmed wants to become a mechanic.

UNICEF’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme tries to encompass such diverse hopes for the future. Opportunities to go to school, reunite with family members and receive vocational training are all part of the programme, which aims to allow the children to be fully reintegrated within their communities and ultimately live the life they choose.

UNICEF is also helping to provide health care, schooling, safe water and sanitation in the Vakaga region. This important part of the healing and development process is not for individual children alone, but for their communities as well.

With a fresh start, these children will have the chance to reclaim their childhood, a vital step for CAR as a whole if it is to become a peaceful and prosperous nation.


 

 

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