Source: The Guardian
The number of child soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) has more than doubled – and possibly quadrupled – since sectarian conflict erupted last year, putting them at risk of long-term psychological damage, Save the Children warns.
An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 boys and girls are currently members of armed groups, compared with around 2,500 at the beginning of the crisis, according to the charity.
A member of the anti-balaka militia poses for a photograph on the outskirts of the capital, Bangui, in January Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Reuters
The CAR was plunged into violence when northern, mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized control of the capital in March 2013, prompting a backlash by the largely Christian 'anti-balaka' militia. Thousands of people have since been killed or displaced by a never ending cycle of revenge attacks.
A report by Save the Children published on Thursday warns that children as young as eight continue to be recruited by both sides. Some are forcibly conscripted while others are motivated to join out of poverty and a desire to avenge the deaths of loved ones.
They are often victims of physical, mental and sexual abuse by militants and can be ordered to kill or commit other acts of violence.
The study quotes Jean (not his real name), a Christian who, unusually, joined the mainly Muslim Seleka at the age of 16 because he thought it would be a way of earning money.
"The time I spent in the group was intense, and I had no idea it would be this way," he recalls. "I had a weapon but I sold it when I came back and kept the money. It was an AK47. I used it and I killed with it. I killed a lot of people... With the presence of the anti-balaka militia there too, it struck me how much this was not like me."
Some of Jean's friends were decapitated by the largely Christian anti-balaka, he added. "I cannot show these friends to you because they are no longer here."
Maeva (not her real name), now 17, joined an armed group last year after she was raped by militia men and her aunt was killed.
"The youngest children in the group are 10... they are all rebels," she says. "When and if there's fighting again, they'll also join the ranks to fight. Otherwise they run errands. I know it's not normal, but each one of us knows why they joined the group. Everyone has something that upset and hurt them, and everyone knows their reason."
The report says that, having witnessed or committed killings and other acts of extreme violence, children associated with armed groups are highly likely to suffer fear, anxiety, depression, grief and insecurity, and many require specialised psychological support.
Each one of us knows why they joined the group
Julie Bodin, Save the Children's child protection manager in the CAR, said: "Many of these children have been through things that no adult, let alone child, should have to go through. Even if they leave the group or are released, these children can find themselves stigmatised, feared or rejected by their communities – they can really struggle to re-enter 'normal' life after so long immersed in violence."
The charity, which provides specialised psychological support for children associated with armed groups, said extreme poverty and lack of education and jobs all contribute to children joining armed groups, effectively creating a huge reservoir of potential new recruits.
Bodin added: "Further resources are urgently needed to rebuild these children's lives, and to rebuild and strengthen the institutions, such as schools, which will help them thrive. This is essential not just for them but for the future of the country."
Save the Children argues that interim president Catherine Samba-Panza's government, the UN and troop contributing countries have yet to meet their promises to prevent child recruitment and demobilise children.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in CAR in the past year. The UN estimates that 2.5 million of the 4.5 million population need emergency assistance, including shelter, food and water, basic healthcare and education for children.
Many perpetrators of the violence are still acting with impunity. Last week Amnesty International said none of the 20 suspected war criminals it identified in a report in July had been brought before a court of law and some were still carrying out atrocities and meddling in the justice system.
Steve Cockburn, Amnesty's deputy regional director for west and central Africa, said: "The failure to hold accountable those implicated in the killing of civilians, the use of child soldiers and the burning of villages means they are not only able to walk free, but also to continue terrorising the population without fear of repercussions."