« The help I received changed my outlook on life »

Aliou* spent three years with an armed group in northern Mali. Thanks to the efforts of UNICEF and its partners, the teenager was released from the group and is now receiving vocational training.

Julie Crenn
Aliou at his vocational training in Kidal
© UNICEF Mali/2021/Keïta
02 March 2022

Kidal – "Today I am happy, my life has changed and I found my parents.”  In his metal carpentry workshop in Kidal, Aliou works hard, focused. In 2017, when he was only eleven years old, the young boy lost track of his family during clashes in the Kidal region. "They fled to Algeria and, as I was in town with friends, I lost them," he says softly. "I had nowhere to eat and sleep, so I went to an armed group.”

"At the beginning I was doing small errands and making tea, then I learned a lot of things: how to handle a weapon, secure a place, salute a leader... I had a military training", explains the teenager, now 15 years old. This life of combat became his daily routine until he was released with other minors by decision of the group's leaders, who have been sensitized on children's rights by UNICEF and its partners.

"When I was told to leave I didn't want to, but my chief ordered me to. I wasn't happy," he says, moving his hands as if reliving the scene. "It took me some time at the centre to adapt and discover a new life.” The centre Aliou is talking about is supported by UNICEF through its NGO partner Solisa, to care  for children associated with armed forces and groups. "When I arrived there, I got a medical check-up, clothes, meals, but most importantly, I was put in touch with my parents. I really missed them, I didn't know where they had been for three years," he recalls, his face lighting up at the memory.

Aliou with Mohamed, his trainer
UNICEF Mali/2021/Keita

“Aliou is a real role model, he loves people and helping others”

Mohamed, artisan instructor

 "I got used to my new life at the centre: every evening we played football, there were also literacy lessons. When we talked about my life project, at first, I wanted to work as an electrician, but there is no electricity in the village where my family has settled.”

"We have to provide them with useful training for their future," confirms Issa*, the director of the Kidal centre, insisting. "The vocational training must be for a job that the child can do in his or her locality, otherwise they will fail.

After three months in the centre, Aliou was reunited with his family: "I was so happy to see them again, especially my mother," he says, still moved. "They had no idea what had happened to me, they were afraid I had died. I told them about the vocational training and they thought it was a good idea.”

The teenager then began his professionnal apprenticeship in metal carpentry and received all the necessary kit: a welding set, a grinding wheel, vices grip and a drill. "I really like it! We make water towers, iron barrels, tables, doors, hand-washing stands..."

Aliou at his vocational training in Kidal
UNICEF Mali/2021/Keita
Aliou at his vocational training in Kidal
UNICEF Mali/2021/Keita

As he has no family in Kidal, Aliou is staying with his artisan instructor, Mohamed*, in a house next to the welding workshop.

"Aliou is a real role model," says Mohamed with pride. "He behaves very well, you can see that he likes people and helping others... He is always looking for a solution for everyone!”

A mutual recognition that can be seen in the eyes of his apprentice: "I still have a lot to learn, I want to improve and master everything in this field," explains Aliou with excitement in his voice. "The help I received changed my life and my vision of life: I discovered how to live outside an armed group," says the teenager. "Today I am learning a profession that will allow me to help my family, that is the most important thing.”

Beyond his own story, Aliou thinks about the other children of northern Mali and their future: "There are many children here who need help because their parents cannot meet their needs; the problem is that there is a lack of activities and opportunities.”

"Ideally, we would like to open a training centre and hire craftsmen instructors like Mohamed to train the young people we want to reintegrate," says Issa, the centre's director. "At the moment, we find craftsmen to train on a case-by-case basis, but if we had a structure and materials in a centre equipped to receive and train young people, it would be better.”

Aliou also has a dream that he hopes to fulfil: "To buy a big welding machine and a generator to set up and open my own business in my family's village.”

*Names have been changed for protection reasons.