What does it take to release a child from an armed group?

A major part of UNICEF’s work in Central African Republic is the demobilization of children from armed groups. So far this year, our team has released more than 1000 recruited children. Freeing one child is a long and delicate process of negotiation, which can be best described by telling the story of what happened on a recent Wednesday, when three of our colleagues were working to release children in three different parts of the country.

That day, our Country Representative Souleymane Diabate was in Bangui where he met with the interim political coordinator of the ex-Seleka armed group. Since 2013, Souleymane has played a key role in advocating for the release of hundreds of children from the ranks of ex-Seleka. Many commanders are reluctant to part with child recruits because they’re some of their best fighters. Convincing them takes careful diplomacy, during which time the armed group leaders must feel respected as allies.

UNICEF staff speak to commanders about the responsibility of the military to protect civilians, including children (these commanders often see themselves as the grassroots heroes of CAR). They also work with commanders to re-define who qualifies as a child. Many believe that a child is under five years of age. They need to broaden this definition to protect older children and teenagers. After meeting with Souleymane, the political coordinator of ex-Seleka re-committed to working with UNICEF and the UN to end the use and recruitment of children.

That same Wednesday, our colleague Sam was in Pissa in the south-west of the country, where he was documenting children from the Anti-Balaka, preparing them for release. The commanders had identified the children in their ranks, but before a child is released, he or she must first be interviewed to determine their age, their background and their relationship with the group. This is to verify that a child was actually a member of the armed group. Sam asked children a series of simple questions, including when and where they were recruited, where some recent battles had taken place, and when they had last seen their parents.

After filling out a standard form, trained social workers can then judge whether a child was a member of the armed group. The children who join the UNICEF rehabilitation program are enrolled in vocational training and get other benefits, so there is the possibility that people will try to enroll other children in the program (who weren’t in the armed group). In most verification exercises, about 80% of children are found to have genuine cases.

The verification exercise used to be done only by UNICEF staff Central African Republic, but now there are so many children in armed groups (estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000) that UNICEF has had to train more than 70 social workers to help carry out the verification process.

Under agreements signed between armed groups and the UN, the groups can no longer recruit children, or accept back children who have been released.

Verification is an important step in the process to release children from armed groups. (c) Jordi Matas/UNICEF
Verification is an important step in the process to release children from armed groups.
(c) Jordi Matas/UNICEF

In the east of the country, another UNICEF colleague Benoit was meeting with UNICEF partner COOPI to monitor the construction of a transition centre which can host more than 200 children after they are released from the ex-Seleka group in that part of the country. The work was being completed quickly so that the centre could be ready to accept a number of children who were about to be released.

Located in the east of the country, this is now the only transition centre in CAR. In other parts of the country, children are placed with host families. The transition centre in Bangui was closed down after all the children there were successfully re-homed with families in the community.

At the transition centre, the children are given a chance to rebuild their lives and imagine a future outside of the armed group. They can either return to school or learn a vocational skill. Depending on how well they adapt to civilian life, they can stay in the transition centre for between one and three months. While they study and receive psycho-social support, their families are traced. Whenever possible children are reunited with their families, and those who cannot be reunited are placed with foster families.

The children - beginning a new chapter of their lives. (c) Jordi Matas/UNICEF
The children beginning a new chapter of their lives. (c) Jordi Matas/UNICEF

Family tracing is done by the International Committee for the Red Cross who conduct an interview with a child requesting more information about their family, where they live, or where they could have fled to. A case management file is opened and it could take one to four weeks to find the family – longer if the family now lives across the border.

The process of releasing a child from an armed group is long and complex. It requires UNICEF to advocate at the highest levels, while also working with families in communities. It takes many days like last Wednesday to make it happen. But when people across the country are united behind a single cause, we can together let freedom reign.

Jean Lokenga is the Chief of Child Protection in Central African Republic and Madeleine Logan is a communications specialist based in CAR.

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