Mid­night’s Chil­dren

As civil war rages again in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic, the num­ber of child sol­diers is in­creas­ing rapidly—de­spite in­ter­na­tional in­ter­ven­tion

Newsweek - - Periscope - BY JACK LOSH @jack­losh

five years ago, when has­san was 11, mili­ti­a­men killed his fa­ther not far from his home in Kaga Ban­doro, a small, cat­tle-trad­ing town in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic, he says. Full of sad­ness and anger, the boy, a mem­ber of the coun­try’s dis­en­fran­chised Mus­lim mi­nor­ity, didn’t be­lieve the courts would de­liver jus­tice. The only thing he trusted, he says, was a Kalash­nikov.

So, not long af­ter his fa­ther’s death, Has­san (iden­ti­fied with a pseu­do­nym for se­cu­rity con­cerns) joined the Séléka al­liance of rebels, a coali­tion of lo­cal and for­eign fight­ers in the civil war, he says. The largely Mus­lim group seized large swaths of the coun­try in 2013, trig­ger­ing reprisals from mostly Chris­tian mili­tias called the anti-bal­aka.

His first job: work­ing as a body­guard for a com­man­der whose armed group was ter­ror­iz­ing towns across this Texas-sized coun­try, sand­wiched be­tween Chad and the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo. Three months later, Has­san says, he was pro­moted to lieu­tenant and put in charge of about 50 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 10 other chil­dren. “At the be­gin­ning, I was scared,” he says. “But later, I lost this fear. I got used to hold­ing a gun.”

The rebels also tasked him with re­cruit­ing more chil­dren, of­fer­ing him spo­radic and mea­ger re­wards. “I liked my work,” he says. “On spe­cial hol­i­days, I would be given cig­a­rettes and money.”

But as the war raged on, sup­plies dwin­dled, and the death toll mounted on both sides. Most nights, he and his pla­toon slept in the bush. While on guard duty, he says, he shot civil­ians if they didn’t lis­ten to his com­mands and stop. “I saw a lot of blood,” he says. “I would be happy af­ter at­tack­ing a town. But this feel­ing went away, and I be­came scared when I re­al­ized that my en­emy would come back.”

To­day, that blood­shed con­tin­ues. Af­ter a ten­ta­tive lull in early 2016, the civil war be­gan rag­ing again later that year. The rebel al­liance has frag­mented into ri­val fac­tions that fight over min­eral re­sources and trade routes across the Cen­tral African Repub­lic. Mili­tias are bol­ster­ing their ranks with more kids, as a United Na­tions–led task force strug­gles to help thou­sands of for­mer

child sol­diers rein­te­grate into so­ci­ety. In March, the U.N. deputy chief of hu­man­i­tar­ian af­fairs, Ur­sula Mueller, said that “the re­cruit­ment and use of chil­dren by armed groups in­creased by 50 per­cent be­tween 2016 and 2017,” and the con­flict con­tin­ues to es­ca­late. Sev­eral thou­sand boys and girls are now being used as com­bat­ants, cooks, mes­sen­gers and porters, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. Chil­dren’s Emer­gency Fund. They are of­ten abused by older mil­i­tants, ordered to com­mit atroc­i­ties and used as hu­man shields. Most have ex­pe­ri­enced deep trauma. “Chil­dren,” says Marie-pierre Poirier, UNICEF’S re­gional di­rec­tor, “are pay­ing the high­est price for this new surge of vi­o­lence.”

Since 2004, Western na­tions and in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions like the European Com­mis­sion, the U.N. and the World Bank have funded sev­eral dis­ar­ma­ment pro­grams in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic in a bid to quell a string of re­bel­lions, en­cour­age armed groups to dis­band and help mil­i­tants re­turn to civil­ian so­ci­ety. Th­ese pro­grams usu­ally of­fer in­cen­tives—such as ed­u­ca­tional sup­port, vo­ca­tional train­ing and paid work—to fight­ers, in­clud­ing child sol­diers, to give up their weapons.

Yet out of the ap­prox­i­mately 12,500 chil­dren re­leased from armed groups since 2014, U.N. fig­ures show more than a third of them—about 4,500— are still wait­ing for as­sis­tance. Key reasons in­clude a lack of money— UNICEF’S op­er­a­tions in this area, for ex­am­ple, are al­most 90 per­cent un­der­funded—and an in­abil­ity for aid work­ers to op­er­ate in some ar­eas con­trolled by armed groups. “If we don’t do the job prop­erly, chil­dren go back,” says a se­nior aid worker who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the mat­ter. Me­di­a­tors try to con­vince com­man­ders that re­leas­ing child sol­diers will ben­e­fit their mili­tias, free­ing up cru­cial re­sources such as food and wa­ter for other fight­ers. “Af­ter­wards,” the aid worker says, “both par­ties sign an agree­ment. We will look af­ter them, and you don’t re­cruit them again.”

Dis­ar­ma­ment pro­grams have be­come a key com­po­nent of the U.N.’S peace-build­ing ef­forts, but th­ese ini­tia­tives are prob­lem­atic. Aid work­ers tell Newsweek that, dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions, mili­tia com­man­ders at­tempt to wrest hand­outs for them­selves from in­ter­na­tional non­prof­its and list fake chil­dren or rel­a­tives as com­bat­ants in ex­change for ben­e­fits.

Louisa Lom­bard, a Cen­tral African Repub­lic ex­pert and Yale Univer­sity as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy, has de­scribed some dis­ar­ma­ment ini­tia­tives as “pits of cor­rup­tion,” in which of­fi­cials have sold slots on pro­grams and failed to track aid. For some crit­ics, even suc­cess­ful dis­ar­ma­ment cam­paigns end up, in­ad­ver­tently, pro­mot­ing the use of vi­o­lence. Ac­cord­ing to Lom­bard, many in the coun­try “con­sider re­bel­lion to be more fruit­ful than ever,” as the re­sult­ing pro­grams may ap­pear to mil­i­tants as “their best av­enue to a salary and other en­ti­tle­ments.”

BABES WITH ARMS

“Chil­dren are pay­ing the high­est price for this new surge of vi­o­lence,” a UNICEF di­rec­tor says, speak­ing of a civil war now rag­ing again.

“At the be­gin­ning, I was scared. But later, I lost this fear. I got used to hold­ing a gun.”

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