Since 2013, The Central African Republic has been plagued by violence and conflict when Muslim Seleka rebels launched a military campaign against the government. Tensions erupted through the country as Christian community members retaliated against the armed rebels.
Despite a new election in 2016, the conflict between Muslim and Christian armed groups has not subsided and violence has become a daily occurrence for local communities across the country.
The UN estimates that at least 13,000 children have been recruited as rebel soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Most child soldiers are kidnapped from their families, whilst some join voluntarily to protect their communities and families from attacks.
Some children join the armed groups to avenge the death of a loved one.
In 2015, UNICEF brokered a deal with the two conflicting armed groups to release 10,000 child soldiers who were being exploited as combatants, cooks, spies, porters, or for sexual purposes.
Figures suggest that most of these children have now officially been released, but with the ongoing violence there is a high risk that these children could be re-recruited.
For those children released from the armed groups, returning to a normal life isn’t easy.
Many children face discrimination and rejection from their families when they return home, especially girls who may have been sexually assaulted or forced into marriage with members in the rebel groups.
Plan International is currently working with other in-country partners to provide psychosocial support and livelihood training to the newly released child soldiers.
To ease and assist their integration back into their communities, we have built a rehabilitation centre in the country’s capital, Bangui, which provides these children with training and work opportunities. The centre also provides emotional and psychological support for those children unable to return to their families.
For children who are shunned by their families, earning a living is virtually impossible, making them easy targets for armed groups to re-recruit with the promise of food and shelter.
There are 50 former child soldiers receiving training in sewing and carpentry at the rehabilitation centre. Some of the children have been able to return to their families, while others are living with foster families until the Plan International team on the ground can facilitate their return home.
16-year-old Lester* is one of the children receiving training to become a tailer at the rehabilitation centre in Bangui.
“Previously, I was in armed groups. This training will help me a lot in the future. The skills I learn here will allow me to have stability and help me to forget my old life. I am very happy to be at this centre and this occupation will prevent me from returning to the armed groups.”
Terese*, 14, lives now lives with a guardian since returning to her community from a rebel group.
“I live in this host family because I did not feel at ease with my family because when the neighbours found out that I was part of an armed group, they began to shun me and my family.Thanks to this rehabilitation scheme, I now lead a quiet life and I am learning sewing at the centre, a job that I like. Thanks to these skills I will live another life, which will allow me to take care of myself and to take care of my parents too.”
Lazaro*, 20, has been able to set up a carpentry workshop in his home thanks to the training and support he received at rehabilitation centre. Using the little wood he can find, he is able to make windows and doors to sell to members in his community.
“When I left the armed groups I was placed in a rehabilitation centre by Plan International where I learnt carpentry. I was also placed in a foster family and everything was fine. But when the locals knew that I was a member of an armed group and child soldier, the problems began so I asked Plan International to help me join my real family. Today I have a small business, I have a table on which I spread my goods and it allows me to help my family which makes me feel good.”
As part of the recent Day of the African Child celebrations, children from the rehabilitation centre were able to take part in a fun day of dancing, singing and role play.
Many of these children were robbed of a safe and normal childhood, which means these recreational activities are vital steps in their emotional and psychological recovery.
In Bossangoa, one school that was the occupied by armed fighters has now resumed lessons. Plan International liaised with the armed group to release the school and allow children to resume their lessons. Plan International rebuilt classrooms and established a school committee to ensure the school continues to function well.
To encourage former child soldiers to return to this school, we distributed hygiene and school kits to the students. Plan International staff also held meetings with rebel leaders and UN peacekeepers to ensure that the kits would not be taken and sold by any of the 15 armed groups still operating in the country.
On this World Humanitarian Day, we want to acknowledge that around the world conflict and violence is exacting a massive toll on the lives of children. Millions of children around the globe are forced to flee their home and school during a conflict, where they become vulnerable to exploitation.
Today is about reaffirming that civilians and aid workers should never be targets during conflict. It’s also about recognising the vital impact humanitarian aid workers have in peace-building for communities affected by war and conflict.
*Names have been changed to protect identities