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