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Real lives

Afghanistan’s former child soldiers are eager to embrace the future

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2004/Mitani
With UNICEF support, the NGO “Solidarité Afghanistan Belgium” (SAB) is running a successful programme for 500 former child soldiers and street children. These boys are learning to become electrical technicians.
By Junko Mitani

NANGARHAR, 16 August 2004 – The bulky military uniform hangs around Abdul’s skinny body. (Names have been changed to protect children depicted in this story.) He hasn’t reached 5 feet in height and his shoulders are slumped. When speaking with others, Abdul usually stares at the floor and rarely smiles. This twelve-year-old Afghan boy is the youngest among 290 former child soldiers, who were demobilized under a UNICEF-supported programme in Nangarhar province near the Pakistan border in early 2004.

Abdul explains in a small voice: “When I was in the third grade at school, my father told me that I should bring money to my family. I had no other choice but join the army.  I’m the eldest among my two brothers and four sisters. It’s my obligation to help my family.”  The army gave him 800 Afghanis (equivalent of USD$16) a month, a uniform, a pair of shoes and some food. The average wage today for unskilled workers in Afghanistan is $100.

He continues: “I worked in the kitchen. I washed the vegetables, pots and dishes, carried food to the soldiers and cleaned the floor all day. I didn’t have fun at all. I didn’t like the army. I wanted to go back to school.”

According to a survey undertaken by UNICEF and partners in 2003, there are an estimated 8,000 former child soldiers in Afghanistan. Many of them have already left the fighting forces voluntarily, but still need support and assistance to reintegrate into civilian life. Some did fight with weapons, but many, like Abdul, served in the army as non-combatants, working as cooks, porters, guards or messengers. They were sometimes subjected to violence, or witnessed traumatic scenes.

“My three wishes”

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2004/Mitani
It’s lunch time for the boys at the SAB training centre.
The end of the army life came suddenly for Abdul.  Approached by UNICEF, non-governmental organization (NGO) partners and Local Demobilization and Reintegration Committees (LDRC), many unit commanders agreed to support the demobilization of  child soldiers and encouraged the children to get some education and learn new skills. Abdul says: “I was surprised and very happy.  My family was happy for me, too.” The demobilized children handed over their guns and registered their names with community leaders.

Now out of the army, Abdul is asked to list three wishes. After careful thought, he says: “I want to go back to school. I want to become a teacher. But if it’s not possible, I want to learn how to weave a carpet so that I can make a lot of money.” Before and after army life, his worry about his family’s income remains the same.

In order to support vulnerable children like Abdul, UNICEF is supporting a comprehensive reintegration programme in cooperation with its partners.

Successful programmes for reintegrating demobilized children

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2004/Mitani
The SAB training centre also offers a literacy course to former child soldiers and street children. Here some girls are attending a class; the boys will take the classes in separate classrooms.
In Jalalabad and Nangarhar province, the NGO “Solidarité Afghanistan Belgium” (SAB), in cooperation with UNICEF, has been running a successful programme for 500 street children, both girls and boys, aged between 14 -18. A child can choose a vocational training course to become a carpenter, an electrical technician, a welder, a tailor or a carpet weaver. Children also attend a variety of classes including basic literacy, mathematics, nutrition and health, sports, art, drama and singing.

In 2003, a total of 6,000 children at risk, including former child soldiers, participated in similar reintegration programmes in Afghanistan. In 2004, another 5,000 former child soldiers and other vulnerable children become involved with these reintegration programmes.

“It’s amazing to see how fast these children learn,” says Mr. Hubert Jourdan, co-director of the SAB centre. “When they arrived here six months ago, many were sad and even depressed. They worried constantly about the money for their families. They often felt looked down on by people on the street. Now, they enjoy playing volleyball, catching up with their education, learning some marketable skills, playing and even quarrelling with friends. They learn gradually how to relate to other children and adults in daily life, not in the context of making money. They laugh and smile,”  says Mr. Jourdan.

After going around the SAB centre, Abdul came forward and asked the question: “When can I join this programme?” After years of lost opportunities, he won’t have to wait long – the UNICEF-supported programme will start in his town in September this year.



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