Free, but not safe: The former child soldiers forced to flee rebel surge

The centre for rescued child soldiers was calm when we visited earlier this week. But a terrifying advance by their old masters shows the peril these young people still face

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Until the day before yesterday the transit camp at Bria was a bustling place of hope. There children, rescued from their fates as child soldiers and sex slaves in the rebel militias of the Central African Republic, were beginning the long, slow task of returning to their childhood – and leaving behind the brutal nightmare of forced soldiering in the African bush.

But then the word came, relayed from the city of Ndele to the north, that a new rebel force was sweeping south. It had already taken Ndele and was on its way towards the capital, Bangui. The dissident band was rampaging through the north-east of the country, looting homes and forcing families to flee into the bush.

Bria was in its path. And these rebels were not party to the agreement negotiated by Unicef, the United Nations children's charity, to gradually free children from military serfdom in the rebel groups of this landlocked African country on the borders of Chad, Congo and war-torn South Sudan.

Aid workers made the decision to evacuate the transit camp, home to 25 of the children at the centre of The Independent's Christmas Appeal to raise funds for Unicef's rescue of child soldiers. It was only a few days since the newspaper's owner, Evgeny Lebedev, had been in the camp to meet the rebel leaders at the centre of the audacious moves to negotiate the children's freedom.

Terror gripped the rescued children as a Unicef aid worker raised the alarm. Word swiftly spread among the former child combatants that armed men might be approaching the sanctuary established by the charity to house them during their rehabilitation.

"They had heard through their friends still in the bush what was happening and were concerned for their safety," said Unicef worker, Linda Tom. They all knew that, if captured, the children face re-recruitment as child soldiers – or worse. "We were nervous too as the infrastructure here is very basic. The decision was made that there was no choice but to evacuate."

The 25 rescued children began hurriedly to pack their few belongings. Within the hour they were piled into the back of trucks to leave the rehabilitation centre and be taken to a UN refugee centre in Bamberi, a safer part of this remote former French colony.

"The children were quiet but calm as we left in trucks," Ms Tom said. "The journey to Bamberi was near-silent, unlike the day before when we'd taken them to swim in the river."

To the north, units of the national army moved to engage the Kalashnikov-wielding rebels. Government forces launched a counter-attack to try to re-establish control of Ndele from which as many as 15,000 people are believed to have fled. As dusk approached the rescued children from Bria met up with other trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles fleeing other Unicef centres in conflict areas where rebels were pillaging buildings looking for supplies and reinforcements.

The convoy drove through the night to reach sanctuary in Bamberi, where staff from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were waiting to house and feed them. "It was a pretty crazy journey," one aid worker said, "but the important thing is all the children are safe and accounted for".

Yesterday Unicef workers were preparing a centre for street children in the capital Bangui for the arrival of the rescued child soldiers. Staff were busy supplying it with mattresses, blankets, mosquito nets, soap, water, food, tents, cooking sets, toys and school materials. It will be home to the children until the situation in the north-east of the country stabilises. The task of the staff who travelled with the children from Bria is to ensure that lives are disrupted as little as possible, said Unicef deputy representative Mary Louise Eagleton. "It is essential to provide a safe nurturing space for them to continue to get the counselling and education they need to deal with the trauma they have experienced in the armed groups," she said. "We will return them to the transit centre as soon as it is safe."

The dramatic events highlight the importance of Unicef's work to ensure the safety of vulnerable former child soldiers no matter what happens. "We now need funds more urgently than ever," she said, "to make sure that these children, who have already been through so much in their short lives, get everything they desperately need to rebuild their futures."

Just £15 will cover the daily cost of food, counselling and continued education for a former child soldier in the new shelter

Money raised by the Independent Christmas Appeal will help fund Unicef's work with former child soldiers in Central African Republic. For details, visit the campaign homepage at Independent Voices.

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