A Childhood Violated: why we are launching this campaign with Unicef to help Africa's child soldiers

The Central African Republic is home to a number of rebel groups that use  child soldiers – with devastating consequences. This is the first despatch of our campaign

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
Share

It was the boy’s eyes that haunted Priscillia. He was dressed in full army gear, a red beret, and sunglasses, and he carried an AK-47 automatic assault rifle. He was tall but there was about him a teenage gangliness that gave away his age. Yet it was the eyes that she could not forget.

They met in the stronghold of one of the rebel groups in the Central African Republic. The boy was a child soldier who had been press-ganged into the forces of the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) which has been fighting for the past four years to overthrow the government in this former French colony in the heart of West Africa.

Priscillia Hoveyda, 30, is a child protection specialist for Unicef in the wartorn country. She is tasked with the dangerous work of entering rebel territory to try to negotiate with the armed rebels for the release of the children they have abducted or forced into arms.

Pain

“As soon as I arrived I saw him,” she said. “He looked no more than 15 years of age. I asked him to take off his sunglasses and put down his gun. I saw immediately he was a child. “I asked his age. He was 15. I asked if he wanted to leave the armed group. He said he did, and that he wanted to go back to school.”

But the rebel commander would not let the boy go and Priscillia had to leave without him. For the next month, she could not rid herself of the memory of the boy’s eyes, filled with pain and mistrust. A month later she went back to the camp.

“I had his name – Assane – and I was determined to get him out.” She found the boy and asked if he remembered her. He said “Yes” and said he really wanted to get out. So Priscillia went back to his commander. Although this time she persuaded the man to free the child, his order was countermanded by a more senior rebel. “He surrounded us with five of his men and was shouting, ‘You can’t take him; he is mine’.” She watched the boy’s face, which had been smiling at the prospect of release, fall as he put all his weapons back on. She left again.

But still Priscillia could not forget. “His face had been so upset. So the next day I went back. At this point I said, ‘We’re not leaving unless he comes too’. Sometimes it’s one kid who gets to you. And finally they let him come out.”

Today The Independent is launching along with Unicef a Christmas appeal to raise money for the release of more child soldiers in the Central African Republic. They are not the only children who have been kidnapped and forced to fight. It is estimated that today some 300,000 children – boys and girls from the age of seven to 17 – are involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide.

But the problem is acute in the north-eastern region of the Central African Republic, close to the border with Chad, where boys are forced to become combatants, and girls made to be domestic labourers and sex slaves. The region is home to a number of rebel army groups that use child soldiers. The most notorious is the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony which operates across the region from the Central African Republic through Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda and South Sudan.

Perilous

Rescuing the children is perilous work. But Priscillia Hoveyda, a lawyer who trained in Paris and New York, is motivated by her own background: she  grew up in Iran when it was at war with Iraq. “I was able to see first-hand the damage war could cause in society, in a community, on a family and a household, on your friends,” she said. “Your whole life is turned upside down.”

Keeping a cool head is essential. “I’ve been in situations in this job where men have been aggressive,” she said, “where they tried to intimidate me and my co-worker. But we know before going that this may happen and know we should not back off; if we back off it shows we feel weak and that will spoil the whole negotiation process. So we have to remain calm and focus on the children.”

What complicates her negotiations is the number of rebel groups. The two main factions, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity and the CPJP – which fight one another as well as the forces of the government – also fight the Lord’s Resistance Army.

All the rebel groups seize children, but most – with the exception of the ruthless LRA – will negotiate with Unicef over the release of children. The skill lies in persuading each side that the other will release its child combatants if they are prepared to do the same.

“The youngest child I released was nine,” Priscillia said. “He was doing all the tasks and chores for the group. The youngest boy forced into combat was 11. The LRA have very, very young kids.” It was, she said, a violation of the very concept of childhood.

Negotiating the children’s release is only the first step. Unicef then runs transit centres where children who have been released are demobilised, put back in school, and given psychological help and vocational training. They are reunited with their families or resettled with foster carers if their families reject them.

All this work is funded entirely by voluntary contributions. The money raised by The Independent Christmas Appeal will go to one fund one of these centres in the Central African Republic.

“With my job I have the opportunity to try and make a difference and try and make it a little less unbearable for children who have been abused sexually, physically or even morally,” said Priscillia. “The hardest part isn’t only getting them out [of the armed group] but finding a sustainable solution for them afterwards.”

Elation

Over the next four weeks The Independent will be reporting on the difficulties and challenges of that long and complex process.

But there can be no under-estimating the elation for children like Assane of that release and that first moment of freedom. In the weeks between identifying Assane and his eventual release Unicef found that the boy’s parents were dead but managed to track down his older brother. As Assane walked into Endelei, the town where the nearest Unicef transit centre was based, his brother was there to meet him.

After they had greeted one another Assane turned to Priscillia and said: “I feel like I’ve come home”.

With additional reporting from Oliver Poole in Bangui

Donate Now

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'