It was a hot, humid day in April when we pulled into the town of Kouango, in the south of Central African Republic, where fighting had stopped just long enough to allow us to venture into the town for a humanitarian assessment and to distribute school kits at the local primary school.
The situation in CAR has developed from a silent emergency into a visible and complex humanitarian and protection crisis, as a result of a Seleka rebel offensive that began in December 2012 and a seizure of power in March 2013. Fighting in the capital reached a peak in December 2013 as armed and community-based self-defense groups calling themselves Anti-Balaka rose up in revenge against ex-Seleka, the armed group who had orchestrated the coup nine months earlier. The violence spread out across the country, with large-scale human rights abuses committed on both sides, followed by a serious deterioration in the humanitarian situation. An estimated 850,000 people are still displaced both inside and outside the country.
We were heading to the town centre when I noticed a young teenager running behind the vehicle, gesturing wildly. He was wearing the trademark UNICEF backpack that we typically distribute to school children.
“Do you remember me?” he asked. We stopped and I recognized him almost immediately: it was Issa*, a child who last year had been part of UNICEF’s disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programme, which works for the release of children associated with armed groups.
Between 6000 and 10,000 children are estimated to have been recruited – and currently in use – by armed groups in CAR. Girls and boys who have been released from these groups have told UNICEF how they were subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. These children are forced to fight alongside adults, or are used as porters, cooks, and servants. One in four recruited children are girls, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Issa lost his father when he was two and was raised by his step-father in Kouango. At age 8, he left his mother’s home to live with his paternal uncle in Lioto, about 50 kilometers away. At 14, he was recruited by the Seleka. It was 2012, and he was forced to take part in combat in the towns of Grimari, Bambari and Siburt. He was one of the close security guards for the famous General Darass, one of the leaders of the Ex-Seleka.
In August 2014, Issa was identified by a child protection worker, released from the group and admitted to a Transit and Orientation Center – CTO – in Bria, where he received holistic treatment for three months before being reunited with his uncle in Bambari in November. The CTO is a UNICEF-supported structure where the children can stay for a few weeks after their release while social workers look for their families and prepare them for reintegration in their communities.
Issa is one of the thousands of children in CAR who have been reached through UNICEF’s DDR programme. In collaboration with the Government, UNICEF engages in negotiations with armed groups to register and release the children in their ranks. In 2014, a total of 2,043 children were released. After their release, UNICEF supports the children through their transition with psychosocial support, educational and vocational training, and reintegration with their families and communities.
Issa told us that he is now back with his mother – who he had not seen in six years – in Kouango. He told us he went back to school earlier this year, in February, and is now in the sixth grade.
He asked us to meet his family, and so we visited his home. This allowed us to see that he had indeed been well integrated into his family. His mother expressed her joy at being reunited with her eldest son. “I thank UNICEF every day for your work to ensure a better future for Central African children,” she said.
Issa can be a child once again, playing with his old friends. He told us that they welcomed him back and did not make him a victim of stigma or discrimination.
He also confessed that since his return he has been approached on multiple occasions by his former armed companions, who have tried to convince him to return to the armed group. But for Issa, this is out of the question. He remembers how much he suffered and he even advises his friends not to make the same mistakes as him.
“The army is hell for children because they are exploited, mistreated, violated and exposed to all kinds of risks.”
Now, at age 17, Issa’s dream is to become a doctor – to help heal the communities affected by conflict in his country.
Benoit Daoundo is a Child Protection Officer working at the UNICEF Bambari field office in Central African Republic.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.