Hundreds of ex-child soldiers
In late May clashes erupted in northwestern Rwanda between the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) and "infiltrators" from the DRC. After two weeks of conflict, the RPA gained control over most of the area, periodically capturing opposing fighters. Of the approximately 1,000 combatants taken into custody through early August, several hundred were children.
Initially kept under the custody of military authorities, the children were soon transferred to a "solidarity" camp in Mudende (Gisenyi Prefecture) set up by the civilian authorities to re-educate those who had been captured or who had surrendered.
To help care for the children, UNICEF provided health supplies, water, sanitation facilities and basic survival items including mattresses, blankets and bed sheets.
"By early August, nearly 300 children had been taken into custody, at a rate of about 50 children per week," said Gerry Dyer, UNICEF's Chief Programme Officer in Rwanda. "Approximately 85 per cent of the children are Rwandan, the rest Congolese."
The children, transferred to the Gitagata rehabilitation centre outside Kigali over the last several days, are now receiving psycho-social counselling and non-formal education provided by UNICEF and its partners. "We are attempting to locate their families and prepare them for eventual re-integration into their communities," Dyer said, adding that government sources had indicated that another 200 former child soldiers could arrive at the centre over the next month.
The children have all expressed a desire to be reunited with their families and communities, and many of them want to return to school.
"I lost both my parents and only one of my sisters survived," said 15-year-old Mbarushimana. "We were forced to join the rebel forces and to perform tasks like water collection, food preparation and carrying soldiers' loads. I am happy to be back in Rwanda - I feel safe and would like to resume school activities."
UNICEF led the first inter-agency mission to Gisenyi after the roads were opened on 1 June. Once the government had set up the solidarity camp in early July, UNICEF immediately provided basic items for the children, including clothes and food. UNICEF also successfully urged the government to separate the children from the adults.
With the children now in rehabilitation, UNICEF is working with:
"We don't believe the children should stay in Gitagata for more than six months," UNICEF's Dyer said. "While we try to locate their families, all possible measures are being taken to provide them with the care and protection they deserve - both now and later, when they return home. That's their right."
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Child Protection issues will also be on the agenda at the UN Special Session on Children, to be held September 19-21 in New York. Find the latest at www.unicef.org/specialsession
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The UN General Assembly will hold its final Special Session of 2001 in September, focusing exclusively on children. At least 69 heads of state and government have so far confirmed their attendance at the Special Session on Children, with another dozen having expressed firm interest, making it by far the largest summit of world leaders this year. for further information, visit: www.unicef.org/specialsession
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