Child Soldiers Are Helping End a Forever War
Children are at the center of the Central African Republic’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic—and to break the country’s cycles of violence.
BANGUI, Central African Republic—Gone are the black-magic amulets that promised invincibility in the heat of battle. So too are the machetes and homemade rifles, once used to hunt civilians like game. Khaki berets and menacing face scarves have been swapped for rainboots and high-visibility jackets.
An unlikely crew of maintenance workers, made up of former child soldiers and other vulnerable youngsters in the Central African Republic (CAR), was hard at work in June 2019. Deployed to an impoverished suburb of the capital, Bangui, they were digging a well for a community otherwise cut off from water supplies.
During years of civil war, whether by choice or by force, these young individuals joined militias that brought the country to its knees. But now, splattered with red-brown mud, elbow-deep in water, and free from the grip of armed groups, they are spearheading the push to protect their fellow citizens from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our response plan for COVID-19 includes the provision of safe water for drinking and hygiene, particularly hand-washing,” said Olivier Sieyadji, a sanitation specialist with UNICEF. “These former child soldiers are more mobilized than ever to construct new water points in the field.”
By drilling for water, they were also drilling for peace. Before the novel coronavirus emerged late last year, this sanitation scheme had been set up to help dozens of teenagers move on from their violent past by giving them new skills and paid work to rebuild CAR from the ruins of a devastating conflict. By hiring ex-militants to do the job, the project supported their rehabilitation, offering them a new stake in society.
Worldwide, tens of thousands of children are estimated to be in armed groups and, while the exact figure is uncertain, the number is growing, having more than doubled since 2012, according to a report published last year by Child Soldiers International, a U.K.-based nonprofit. The changing nature of 21st-century conflict is putting children onto front lines in new and atrocious ways; wars are becoming longer, more urban, and increasingly irregular, drawing in greater numbers of insurgent and militia groups. The Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, estimated in 2014 that the global cost resulting from the consequences of all physical, psychological, and sexual violence against children could be as high as $7 trillion, surpassing the institute’s estimate of how much it would cost to prevent much of this violence.
The results have been catastrophic for places like CAR, which is ranked among the worst conflict-affected countries for children to grow up in and which still suffers interethnic hostility and clashes over diamond mines, gold reserves and lucrative cattle migration routes. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic created new conditions for fresh conflict. While recent fighting in CAR has generally appeared unconnected to the lockdown, such measures could trigger a sharp increase in food prices, disrupt peacekeeping operations, and hamper the supply of aid, pushing hard-up communities to the edge.
The virus has already featured as a possible factor in one serious security incident. In late March, militants entered a camp holding around 8,000 internally displaced people who had fled earlier fighting in Ndele, a rebel-held town in northern CAR. These soldiers forcibly evicted all the inhabitants and ordered them to return to their homes, “blaming them for the potential spread of COVID-19,” according to a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Another official with detailed knowledge of the incident confirmed that the armed group responsible for the illegal eviction did raise concerns to aid workers about the heightened virus risk posed by the displacement site’s cramped and unsanitary conditions. However, the militants’ desire to dismantle and eradicate an unseemly camp was more likely driven by political anxieties than health concerns. Following scenes of fighting and displacement, the official added, rebel commanders in charge of the town now “wanted to show they were in control of the situation” and that under their authority “life in Ndele was normalizing”—even if achieving that dubious impression required storming a displacement camp in violation of international law.
With its long history of coups, conflicts, and civil unrest, CAR continues to face recurrent cycles of violence that expose communities to horrific attacks, promote the recruitment of child soldiers, and impede the country’s economic development, leaving it acutely vulnerable to public health crises like the coronavirus pandemic. Grassroots peace-building initiatives such as the well-drilling project for former child soldiers—as well as accompanying judicial endeavors to impose the rule of law in the country—may offer CAR an opportunity to break with the past.
Back in the drizzly suburb of Bangui, a crowd of young children gathered to watch the well-digging crew in action. One of the workers hoisted himself onto the drill to apply pressure to it as four others manually turned it around to bore deep into the ground. The community’s curiosity about their activities was a positive sign.
Without this kind of work, former child soldiers are more likely to face stigma and rejection, which can impede recovery and increase their chances of being recruited again, in turn fueling new violence. This is not just a human rights issue; it’s a security concern, too. The use of child soldiers may prolong wars by increasing the strength of a rebel group and its ability to keep fighting. Likewise, these youngsters become socialized into conflict, acquiring militant values that make them more prone to aggression.
“Interventions that help children to be accepted by their families and communities are key for a successful rehabilitation,” said Zihalirwa Nalwage, UNICEF’s chief of child protection in CAR.
Of course, digging wells in itself is not enough to treat complex cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Given their repeated exposure to warfare, sexual violence, and other traumas during the critical years of childhood development, many of these young people need specialized therapy, so this project runs alongside counseling and other psychiatric interventions. However, overwhelming caseloads of patients coupled with massive shortfalls in humanitarian funding can put that kind of support out of reach, leaving mental scars unhealed. Last year’s aid plan for CAR was 30 percent unfunded; 2020’s appeal is currently short by about $420 million—a gap amounting to 76 percent of the total target.
Instead, projects like the well-drilling one offer a redemptive process that helps former child solders move past their wartime activities. Transforming them into constructive citizens can reduce their feelings of shame, self-loathing, and guilt while allowing them to regain self-esteem, social status, and a sense of normality.
“The population faces a critical water situation,” said Maxime Yandjia, the country director in CAR for a continent-wide organization called Water and Sanitation for Africa, which works alongside UNICEF. “This project tackles that problem while also bringing these former child soldiers together and reintegrating them into the community after the war.”
The pandemic has given their hygiene-boosting efforts new urgency, putting these young former militants at the center of a critical public health initiative. Following the detection of CAR’s first case of COVID-19 in March, the number of confirmed cases has climbed to over 1,800—lower than in some neighboring countries, though that is likely due to less testing and patchy state control. Meanwhile, almost 80 percent of households in CAR lack hand-washing facilities, and more than half face substandard sanitation, forcing people to use rudimentary latrines or dispose of human waste in the open. As one of the world’s poorest countries, CAR simply does not have the wherewithal to cope with a widespread coronavirus outbreak.
Against this troubling backdrop, the well-drilling teams coordinated by UNICEF and Water and Sanitation for Africa have raced to install 20 new wells since the start of the year, bringing improved water supplies to around 10,000 people, with more planned for Bangui and Paoua in the northwest. “The team can be deployed promptly to improve water coverage in affected areas,” added Sieyadji, of UNICEF. “The tools are light and can easily be transported to remote areas.”
Among his crew of former child soldiers was Emmanuel, whose blank expression and unnerving intensity hint at a history of violence that still haunts him. In 2013, as a mainly Muslim coalition of rebel groups known as the Séléka rampaged through the capital and seized power in a coup, several soldiers from this unruly alliance entered Emmanuel’s home and killed his parents and older sister. Grieving, angry, and just 13 years old, he joined a militia.
His group belonged to the anti-balaka movement that, in response to the Séléka’s horrific regime, was rapidly recruiting vigilantes from Christian and animist communities. Targeting Séléka rebels and Muslim civilians alike, their revenge attacks plunged the country deeper into turmoil.
At first Emmanuel ran errands for his superiors, shopping for food or cooking meals in the group’s camp beyond the city limits. Soon he was handed an AK-47 and deployed to street battles around a Muslim quarter of the capital.
“They attacked us, so we fought back,” said Emmanuel, whose name has been changed because former child soldiers can face reprisals and stigma. “Life was hard. When we weren’t fighting, we slept in the bush. I did many bad things during that time.”
Over the coming years, the warring parties fragmented into smaller sectarian factions as the broad religious divide splintered into a convoluted ethnic conflict, compounded by clashes over control of mineral reserves. This prolonged the violence and ravaged CAR’s weak health care system, leaving it utterly unprepared for the pandemic today. Hospitals were raided by militants. Doctors trying to offer routine health care ended up treating wounded civilians and rape survivors. Many health care personnel fled, while those who stayed behind faced attacks, even murder, making CAR one of the most dangerous countries for humanitarian workers.
In 2017, as part of UNICEF-led efforts to free child soldiers, the anti-balaka allowed Emmanuel to leave. He was just one of 3,066 children released that year from CAR’s multitude of militias, which still control around three-quarters of CAR’s territory. Between 2014 and the end of last year, more than 14,500 child soldiers have left these groups, including almost 4,000 girls.
Today, Emmanuel and around 50 other former child soldiers and street kids have built wells for some 25,000 people living in areas around Bangui as well as in Sibut to the north and in Bangassou to the east. By the time Emmanuel joined, the program had already been running since 2015, when manual-drilling specialists from Laos were flown into CAR. They shared inexpensive techniques that have provided clean water and convenient hand pumps in the Southeast Asian country for decades, costing a quarter of the price of mechanical methods to drill boreholes.
For Emmanuel, now aged 18, the benefits of his new job are twofold. He’s making a living and paying back a debt to society. “This work could change my life,” he said. “I finally have some money. And I’m helping these communities and my country.”
As the government in CAR has tightened measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus—and aid groups have tried to encourage practices like social distancing in the areas outside of state control—the well-drilling task force of former child soldiers has continued its crucial work to bring water to the people. They have reduced the size of their teams and received masks, soap, and training to mitigate the risks of COVID-19. Building more wells not only promotes hand-washing; it also reduces congestion around existing taps, making it easier for people to keep their distance from each other while waiting in line.
This last bit is crucial. Densely populated slums and an internally displaced population of more than 600,000 people—many of whom live in overcrowded camps—add to CAR’s cocktail of conditions in which the coronavirus can thrive.
While digging wells offers income, purpose, and stability to former fighters, some 5,550 children remain trapped in armed groups nationwide. Some are combatants, while others act as cooks, guards, porters, messengers, or lookouts. Negotiations to release these children are ongoing and can last between two months and two years.
During these tentative talks, UNICEF staff talk with rebel commanders about the responsibility to protect civilians, inform them of international law, and clarify the definition of a child. Some commanders, for example, may only regard a child as someone under 5 years old, leaving older children and teenagers at risk of recruitment.
Child-protection activities in CAR receive far less funding than similar work in Syria, in South Sudan, and on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, according to a Save the Children report last year. In 2018, a global average of just $3 were spent on each child in need of protection for the entire year, falling way short of what is needed.
Mental-health activities can cost $50 per child, let alone the additional cash needed for food, education, and other kinds of relief. According to official U.N. figures, there are some 798,000 children in need of protection and psychotherapy in CAR, but a lack of funding means that the target for this year is just 150,000, less than 20 percent of the total.
Meanwhile, a shaky cease-fire between the CAR government and 14 armed groups signed last year is failing to hold. Last month, thousands fled fighting in the southeast, while, in April, dozens of people were killed and wounded in renewed clashes between rival rebel factions in Ndele to the north—grim reminders of the bloodshed that has blighted this country for years.
Persistent outbreaks of violence mean that some commanders will be unwilling to lose personnel, no matter how young. Child fighters may even be particularly attractive to these militia leaders. Less able to assess risk and to withstand indoctrination, children recruited into armed groups can be manipulated to terrorize rivals and inflict atrocities that older, more resistant individuals may shun.
“These children are among the most vulnerable in the country,” said Christine Muhigana, UNICEF’s representative in CAR. “Their fate remains unclear.”
This is a critical year for CAR. Its former authoritarian leader, François Bozizé, has returned from exile ahead of presidential elections due in December, even though he is under U.N. Security Council sanctions for supporting anti-balaka attacks. His unexpected return to the country was followed by that of Michel Djotodia, the former rebel leader who had ousted Bozizé in 2013 in a bloody coup. With peace in CAR on a knife-edge, their critics fear that their potential return to the country’s febrile political stage could ratchet up tensions in the run-up to elections.
Meanwhile, worried that the pandemic may postpone the elections, some politicians have tried rallying support for a controversial alternative: extending the term of the current president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. The opposition has said that any such move would amount to a destabilizing and unconstitutional power grab. Their objection to it was vindicated last week by a ruling at the country’s highest court, which rejected the proposed changes to the constitution that would have allowed Touadéra to stay in power.
If CAR’s tentative peace collapses, the progress made by peace-building efforts like the well-drilling project could be wrecked, and its young participants could be among the first to return to the aegis of armed groups.
Across the country, two-thirds of all children are in urgent need of aid, lacking access to food, health care, and other basic needs. On average, one in five do not attend school. In areas worst affected by conflict and poverty, that figure is closer to four in five. More than 500 grave violations of child rights were reported last year. These include killing, maiming, abducting, recruiting, and sexually abusing children; attacking their schools; and denying them aid. The real numbers are almost certainly far higher.
The problem in CAR is that those committing these crimes are unlikely to face justice. Impunity is widespread, and a dysfunctional judicial system denies victims redress. There is nothing to stop perpetrators from repeating the same violations without facing accountability, and that damages the chances of winning a sustainable peace.
Recent months have offered some promising exceptions to this depressing rule. While many former combatants like Emmanuel go through a more constructive process of restorative justice, helping them build new relationships and repair harm in their communities, a more retributive strategy is running alongside this to put the worst offenders on trial, whether in national or international systems, or indeed a hybrid of the two.
At the International Criminal Court in The Hague, two alleged anti-balaka chiefs are awaiting trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In Bangui, a national court prosecuted 28 anti-balaka militants in February for massacring Muslim civilians in 2017. Jail sentences ranged from 10 to 15 years, with five senior figures given life sentences. For some observers, these convictions were bittersweet, serving only to highlight the impunity enjoyed by those even higher up the chain of command.
“The massacre would not have been possible without the ideological and financial support of some Bangui-based politicians,” said Enrica Picco, a lawyer and researcher specializing in conflict and justice in the region. “The convictions hit only the perpetrators of those crimes, not their instigators. The initiative of the national courts to investigate war crimes has to be welcomed, but there is no political will to go further.”
After a slow start, prosecutors at another institution in Bangui called the Special Criminal Court have started investigations into suspected war criminals; the first trials are expected to be held next year. Last month, 18 militants from two different rebel groups—the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) and the Popular Front for the Rebirth of the Central African Republic (FPRC)—were arrested by U.N. peacekeepers at the court’s request in areas outside of the state’s control. Similar U.N.-backed tribunals have dealt with atrocities committed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia. However, based on the premise that accountability will deter attacks and foster peace, this is the first such tribunal to be established inside a country where fighting continues.
This month marks the five-year anniversary since the founding of this much-vaunted court. It holds plenty of promise but has been slow off the mark. “Seen as a symbol of hope for many victims, the establishment of the Special Criminal Court was a response to a unanimous call for justice and accountability,” said Tity Agbahey, Amnesty International’s Central Africa campaigner, who has urged Western governments and the U.N. to boost the court’s funding. “More effort must be made to get the court fully operational and ensure victims of the heinous crimes that have taken place will soon see the first trials.
Last year, one of CAR’s rebel leaders, Abdoulaye Miskine, was arrested across the border in Chad in a promising development for putting warlords in the dock. It emerged last week that Miskine—whose armed group, the Democratic Front of the Central African People (FDPC), was a signatory to last year’s peace deal — is being held in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, accused of overseeing rape and an “insurrectional movement.” The U.N. Security Council has put him under sanctions including an asset freeze and travel ban (as Washington did in 2014) while, according to Chad’s justice minister, the ICC has given an “expression of interest” in this incarcerated commander. It’s not clear, however, whether he’ll ever end up in the dock. Attempts by the CAR government to secure his extradition from Chad have so far failed.
Finally, CAR’s long-awaited Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation Commission is touted as another tool to help bring about a sustainable peace. However, this South Africa-style body has been dogged by delays while centralized control in Bangui exposes it to political pressure. On top of this, its mandate—to “establish the truth about serious national events since 1959”—is worryingly broad, and key witnesses living in far-off, poorly connected provinces could be left out of the process. Even with the best intentions, it may prove ineffective against CAR’s powerful elites as “an empty commitment that could bring all parties in conflict to an agreement without affecting their interests,” said Picco, the lawyer.
Despite these challenges, the desire for peace among ordinary Central Africans remains strong. One of the few women in Bangui’s extraordinary well-drilling crew is Josephine, formerly a teenage member of the anti-balaka who is now helping to build a new peace and bolster her country’s resilience to coronavirus.
Six years ago, aged 14, Josephine was staying with relatives when the Séléka attacked and killed her uncle, having already slain her parents a few months earlier. She joined the anti-balaka and spent the next three years with the militia, guarding prisoners and cooking for the commander. “They were friendly to me,” said Josephine, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “They didn’t pay us but gave food and soap for showering.”
The camaraderie and handouts came at a price. “I saw many people killed,” she added. “They would execute them right in front of me. Sometimes they shot them, sometimes they stabbed them.” During a lull, Josephine moved back to Bangui and heard that UNICEF was training former militants in well-drilling. Eager for a fresh start, she signed up.
For Josephine—now in her early twenties and raising two children—the job’s tough, but the rewards are worth it. As the pandemic looms over this fragile country in the heart of Africa, the weight of her task has grown.
“When I was in the anti-balaka, I didn’t do anything to help the country,” she said. “Now I’m contributing to the community. The work is hard. The men don’t think I can do it. But every day I prove them wrong.”
Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering conservation, humanitarian issues and traditional cultures, often in areas of conflict and crisis. Twitter: @jacklosh