In the last 18 months of yet another armed conflict, as many as 10,000 children in the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) have been recruited by armed groups. To date, UNICEF has negotiated for the release of 1,400 of these young boys and girls who now face the struggle of reintegrating into society.
In Jerome’s village, the attack was swift and violent. During the Seleka rebel raid, some people were burned in their homes while others were shot as they tried to run.
”I’ll never forget that day,” Jerome said, his voice breaking. “The Seleka killed my uncle. That pushed me to join the anti-balaka militia.”
Jerome is one of the 1,400 children who have been released by armed groups since January. UNICEF deputy representative, Judith Léveillée, has been in Bangui since August 2013.
“At that time we were estimating around 2,000-3,000 children associated with armed groups. In November we revised the figures to 6,000 children. Nowadays we are talking about 6,000-10,000 children associated with the armed groups,” said Léveillée.
In less than 18 months, the C.A.R. has seen Muslim rebels topple the government, retaliatory attacks by Christian militias, thousands killed and millions displaced. A U.N. peacekeeping mission is here struggling to restore order.
In the continuing chaos, joining armed groups is still one of the only means of finding protection for many children who lost or were separated from their parents. Jerome said it was his only way to survive.
“Together with a couple of other boys, I used to put up a checkpoint on one of the small roads leading out of town. Those who wanted to pass were forced to give up money or food,” Jerome said.
Shortly after Serge joined the anti-balaka, the militia attacked the capital on December 5, 2013.
“When the militia attacked, we, the children, were always at the front,” recalled Serge.
He said he’s 17, but his boyish features and thin frame make him look much younger.
A majority of the children are recruited in their early teens but some have yet to turn 10.
A child’s age and physique will determine their roles in the armed groups. A well-built boy might be a fighter or carry arms the front. Younger children become cleaners, said Serge.
“I was a good fighter. Fearless. The commander liked me,” he said.
One fifth of the children being released are girls. They were used as cooks, cleaners or were married off to commanders says UNICEF’s Léveillée.
“They do all the camp chores, but also act as sex slaves or they get under the protection of one of the commanders. Sometimes they get pregnant. Some are really young - 10,12, 14 years old. When they are released from the armed groups we really have to pay attention to their needs and to make sure to provide them with support so that they can earn a living or go back to school and care for their child,” said Léveillée.
The Central African Republic has been plagued by conflict since the country’s independence from France in 1960. In 2013, the Seleka ousted president Francois Bozizé and rebel leader Michel Djotodia became the country’s first Muslim president. In January this year he handed power to an interim government.
Léveillée said children were recruited as early as December 2012 as the Seleka advanced south through the region of Ouaka in northern C.A.R. Some children have spent up to two years with the rebels.
“In some cases they’ve gone so far in the level of atrocities that it’s very difficult for them to return to where they are from… If we don’t accelerate and respond to the needs, there is a risk there will be a lost generation in this country,” said Léveillée.
Today half of the country’s 4.5 million people are under 18 -- yet half the country’s schools remain closed.
Léveillée said giving the children the opportunity to reunite with their families is an important part of their reintegration process. But for some, this is not an option.
“I haven’t talked to my family since the day the rebels attacked. I have no means to contact them. I don’t even know if they’re alive,” said Jerome.
So far, the majority of children released have been part of the anti-Balaka. Several hundred have been released by the Seleka and about a hundred by the Lord’s Resistance Army - the notorious rebel group led by Joseph Kony.
A few of the children spoke the Arabic only spoken in Chad and Sudan, illustrating how the conflict has pushed people to cross borders says Léveillée.
“We need to keep in mind that if we find a child that’s eight years old in an armed group we need to follow that child until it's 18 years old. It’s our responsibility to make sure there’s no re-recruitment and that there’s thorough follow-up by the community, by the caregivers - the parents, if they’re still alive,” said Léveillée.
But with the conflict far from over, some children will end up back with armed groups.
Not long ago, Serge said he had all the money he needed, a rebel uniform that commanded fear and even though he was still a boy, he felt like a man. He’s not ready to return to his old life just yet.
“I have no contact with my family and I don’t know what it’s happening in my hometown,” he said. But he added that if the battle continues, and the group needs him. he’ll join the anti-balaka again.