By Suzanne Beukes
N’DELE, Central African Republic, 17–24 August 2012 – Mustafa* wipes his tears with the green camouflage headscarf he has worn for the past year and a half spent associated with an armed group in the Central African Republic known as Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP). His brother, who is 18 and remains a member of the group, stands in a crowd that has gathered to see Mustafa and two other boys leave. He is visibly emotional about Mustafa’s departure, but he tries to hide it.
|17-24 August 2012: UNICEF correspondent Suzanne Beukes reports on UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War Ishmael Beah's recent visit to the Central African Republic, where 10 children were released from armed groups. Watch in RealPlayer|
It is a three-hour drive from the small village of Boulekenia, near the border of Chad, to N’dele, the capital of the prefecture. It is the rainy season, and the road is particularly bad. The driver stops the car several times so that Mustafa can be sick. Halfway to N’dele, Mustafa throws the headscarf out the window. It is over, this life of war. A new, unknown life begins on the other side of this difficult trip.
Advocating for children
Together with seven others, Mustafa and the two boys are welcomed at a transit centre in N’dele by children aged 10 to 18 who have also been released this year from CPJP. Here they will either return to school or learn a vocational skill. While they study, their families are traced. After some time at the transit centre, the children are either reunited with their families or placed in foster care.
Some years ago, UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War Ishmael Beah found himself in a similar position. He was forcibly recruited as a child during a civil war in Sierre Leone and eventually wrote a bestselling book about his experiences. He seeks to raise awareness about the issues facing children affected by war. “I came to Central African Republic to shed light on the issues of children in armed conflict, which is a very dire situation here, and also to spend some time with some of the young people who are coming from these groups that have been released,” he said.
The removal of children from armed groups in the Central African Republic is part of efforts by a UN task force, mandated by the UN Security Council, that releases and rehabilitates children affected by armed groups. Despite the validation of national policies on child protection, Central African children face serious human rights abuses and violations. To date, only three of the eight armed groups operating in the country have signed an action plan to prevent and to end these violations.
The road to reintegration is not easy
In conflict-affected towns such as N’dele and Akroussoulback in the northeastern part of the country, the presence of these groups is heavily felt. Soldiers walk around town wielding rocket-propelled grenades and AK47s as though they were shoulder bags.
These communities know war and violence, as they are confronted with them every day. According to UNICEF Central African Republic Chief of Child Protection Fosca Giulidori, “The presence of these groups is very strong in the communities here, and, because there is such limited infrastructure and access to social services, children are particularly vulnerable to being recruited into armed groups because few other options exist for them.”
Ahmed* felt compelled to join an armed group after his father was killed in an attack on his village. He was 11, at the time. Within four years, he had become one of the group’s highest-ranking officials. “I thought that if I stayed in the group, I would become lost,” he reflects.
Ms. Giulidori explains, “It took a very long time to convince Ahmed and the group officials that he should leave. They were reluctant because he is a leader and strong combatant, and naturally he was afraid of life outside the groups.”
UNICEF brought Ahmed to the transit centre. He stayed for some time before being placed in his uncle’s home. “I am taking computer classes now. The first lesson taught us how to switch it on, in the second lesson we learnt how to use the mouse,” he says with a guarded smile.
Despite his progress so far, he is at constant risk of being lured back into the group. Ahmed is particularly vulnerable because of the position he formerly held. He knows he must leave N’dele and wants to stay with his brother in the capital city of Bangui. “But even there,” he says, “I have enemies.” Despite this risk, he is determined to continue with his computer classes and resist returning to the group.
“When you are conditioned to function a certain way, it takes time to know that something else is possible…I went through that myself,” says Mr. Beah, who spent five days with the children conducting sessions covering such themes as loss, time at war and reintegration. “But it takes hard work. I want to leave behind the message that it is not easy, it takes perseverance, but in the end, you can get to the point when you feel like there is something better. This all starts by leaving behind your weapons.”
*Names have been changed to protect children’s identities.