The advance began when the rainy season was over and the crops were brought in. The land was at its driest and the roads most passable. It was then that the groups emerged from the bush of the Central African Republic and started their march on the capital, Bangui. They left a trail of looting, murder and rape in their wake.
The boy was among them, taken from his home village at the age of just 14. Then, he had been a schoolboy. Now, aged 17, he has been brutalised, drugged and given a gun by the warlords who commanded him. “I was full of violence,” he said.
The rebels were a ragtag collection of blood-diamond dealers, Islamic extremists, and fortune hunters from neighbouring Chad and Sudan who saw their chance for easy pickings, and seized it. Three months was all it took for them to oust the government of the Central African Republic and take control in March this year.
We still do not know the extent of the cruelty they wrought as many parts of the country remain too dangerous for international observers to reach. But what we do know is tragic enough. Houses were torched and villages razed. Human rights organisations estimate thousands were killed.
In Bangui, residents talk of militiamen coming to homes and killing their owners. Women were raped. Groups were lined up on a nearby hill and shot. The River Ubangi became a thoroughfare for bodies. The boy was part of that. He saw many of the battles – and the deaths that followed. “I was being given cocaine and opium,” he said. “If anyone messed with me, I would want to kill them.”
Previously he could not imagine sleeping without a weapon beside him. But today he is no longer at the mercy of the commanders who made him fight. Today, he is training to work as a tailor and meets his friends most days to play football. This turnaround was achieved with the generosity of Independent readers. Last Christmas this newspaper, in association with Unicef, ran a campaign to help fund the rehabilitation of child soldiers in the Central African Republic. We knew then how vital this cause was, offering the chance to save boys brainwashed into becoming warriors and young girls taken as sex slaves by barbaric militias.
The last 12 months have been among the worst the Central African Republic has experienced since achieving independence from France in 1960. The advance of the warlords, and the subsequent collapse in government, resulted in almost a quarter of a million refugees, warnings of malnutrition, disease, the closure of its schools, and the disappearance of its police force.
Normally when a crisis erupts there can be a gap of months between funding appeals being made and the money arriving. As The Independent’s campaign was launched before the violence began, the funds arrived just as they were most needed. Unicef funded the escape of former child soldiers in its care from the advancing militiamen, and then kept them housed, fed and protected. It enabled all of those it continued to look after to be rehabilitated and successfully reunited with their home communities.
Most are in education. Some have started their own businesses; one is so successful he is now supporting his entire extended family. Two have had babies, who are also being supported to give them the best start in life that circumstances allow.
Even now, almost a year on, the money is still helping. It still funds the only two centres in the country supporting children who were captured by armed groups, a number now feared to be as many as 3,500 after numbers swelled during the rebel advance this year, when warlords took boys and girls from their families. At the sites, former child soldiers are weaned off the drugs they were given to encourage them to fight, provided with psychological care and, slowly, taken through the process of once more being able to return to everyday life.
“This project has saved a lot of lives,” the project’s director, Rudolf Yosua, 49, explained. “The children are often not easily accepted back into their communities. Even if they wanted to leave the armed groups, if these centres did not exist they’d have to ask the question: ‘Where will I go?’”
The boy who had described to me how he had been trained to kill is one of those undertaking this rehabilitation programme. He arrived at a centre just outside Bangui in May. Back then he was plagued by nightmares and the physical effects of drug withdrawal. With Unicef’s help, he is starting to put on weight and dreaming of when he might be able to return to his village.
“I no longer want to fight,” the boy, who cannot be named under Unicef’s child protection guidelines, told me. “I want to see my family and make a contribution to my community. I want to live the rest of my life.”
Since 2003, the Central African Republic had been led by François Bozizé, a former army officer who seized power in a military coup. His rule was far from perfect. Cronyism and corruption were endemic and welfare services limited by near non-existent infrastructure.
But the period had at least been administratively stable, and hope for the future was given by Bozizé’s engagement with the international community and its expected norms of behaviour. The country’s new rulers, Séléka, do not appear to share these concerns.
Séléka – meaning “alliance” in the local language – emerged last year when various groups that had been fighting the government, and each other, united to end Bozizé’s rule. It seized the capital in March and the group’s leader, Michel Djotodia, was subsequently sworn in as President. He pledged to hold elections within 18 months but there is little sign yet of a move towards democracy.
Crime is unfettered, not least after the main prison was stormed and its prisoners released. Carjackings in Bangui are common, and the situation in the country’s vast hinterland is worse with reports of buildings being so thoroughly looted that even the light switches have been removed.
Séléka emerged from CAR’s mainly Muslim north-east and the country’s Christian majority now claim they are being targeted for reprisals. In response many communities have started to arm themselves for protection.
“They came for my neighbour one night and knocked on his door,” one 27-year-old Bangui man said of the killings now plaguing the country. “They took him and his body was found the next morning left by the road.”
This month United Nations officials warned the UN Security Council that CAR risked slipping into genocide if Christians and Muslims continue to be incited to kill each other in what has become a virtually lawless state.
This is why the child soldier centres are lauded by Unicef as one of the few beacons of hope and stability. Some 152 former child soldiers have been looked after in recent months.
President Djotodia has responded to the state of near anarchy by ordering the abolition of the militias. This means the child soldiers in them are going to need rehabilitation.
The Unicef representative for CAR, Souleymane Diabate, said the President had overseen the handover to Unicef of a number of boys he had identified among his own troops. More are scheduled to arrive at the centres in coming weeks, meaning they are now preparing for an influx. Mr Diabate had a simple message for those who donated to make that possible. “Thank you,” he said.