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When Juliette was 13, the men with guns came. They took her from her home, their leader handed her to his lieutenants, and for three years she was used as a sex slave. Now she is five months pregnant, impoverished and alone.
The soldier who fathered her child threw her out of the camp when she became pregnant. The village she came from in the north of the Central African Republic was unwilling to welcome back an unmarried mother, despite the circumstance in which the child had been conceived.
A month ago the children’s charity Unicef found Juliette and moved her to a rehabilitation centre in the northern town of Bria. She has since been moved – twice – as rebel troops, hostile to the government, pressed south towards the capital Bangui.
First she was moved to a centre for street children converted by Unicef in Bangui. Then on Boxing Day she and 63 other rescued children were evacuated again, to the safety of a secure compound in the city. There she and the other children rescued from armed militias by Unicef – in work being funded by The Independent’s Christmas appeal – are being supported by a network of teachers, doctors and psychosocial workers who will continue the children’s rehabilitation after their enslavement by armed rebel factions.
Juliette’s greatest concern, however, remains for the boys and girls who are still with the paramilitaries. “They are not well,” she said, the bump of her pregnancy clearly visible against her top. “They do not eat well. They sleep in very poor conditions. They have to stand guard at night. When it rains, they have to stand in the rain. Here we are well. Here we sleep well. Here we are OK.”
Juliette and her belongings were taken by rebels from the CPJP (the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace) when her home town of Aigbando was overrun by the militia’s soldiers.
If the soldiers demanded to have sex with her and she refused, she was punished by being tied up and beaten. Some of these beatings occurred in public, the girl tied to a post. In recent months at least two women have died while being punished in this way.
In the centre of the CPJP’s camp a pit had been dug, and girls who “misbehaved” were often thrown in and left in the hot tropical sun.
But for Juliette, now she has escaped from the militias, the challenge for Unicef is to help her reintegrate into the local communities and resume – as much as possible – a normal life.
It’s a tough challenge. Local people are often frightened of the child soldiers, who were brainwashed, fed drugs and forced to commit such atrocities to turn them into killing machines.
It takes months of work by Unicef to rehabilitate them. And it can take just as long for the local people to accept them back into their communities.
When the security situation in the country returns to normal a team of outreach workers from the rehabilitation centre in Bria will resume its regular visits to the surrounding villages to prepare them for a child’s return. Local people are educated on these visits, learning that the child soldiers are victims too, and that they need the community’s help to recover from their ordeal.
When a child is placed back with relatives or a foster family – often for nights only at first, their days still spent at the centre – the outreach workers visit two or three times a week to check they are OK, and to offer counselling when problems arise.
Roselyne Gounalahou is one of the centre’s outreach workers. When I accompanied her on her rounds, it was clear how important this work is. One teenage girl, Clemence, was gradually re-establishing contact with her mother, visiting her home a couple of days a week under Roselyn’s watchful eye.
It was clearly still early days for this family, their greeting to each other a handshake and the mother and daughter sitting awkwardly beside each other as they spoke outside the family’s mud brick hut. Yet both were clearly happy to have the chance to be reunited.
“When I was with the armed group I never thought for a second I would see my mother again,” Clemence said. “I never felt I would receive my freedom. Now I just want to rekindle our relationship.”
Shortly after Clemence was taken by the CPJP, her mother took a dangerous trip to the armed group’s camp to plead for her daughter’s return. Shewas refused. “I think about what will happen now,” Clemence’s mother said. “I make plans about what it means and how we can make it work. I can help her. There are many things now in her head that I can help her with.”
She turned to look at her daughter. “I never expected to see her back. It was a great surprise seeing her again. A magical surprise.”
By contrast, Juliette is not yet at the stage where she can move out of the direct care of Unicef. Her pregnancy makes reintegration more difficult. She and her family are at present not even talking.
Instead the charity is helping her through her pregnancy and procuring stock and equipment so she can set herself up as a small businesswoman to feed her and her child when the baby is born.
Ms Gounalahou says the most important thing, in a case like Juliette’s, is “patience”.
“What the children experience with the armed groups is terrible,” she said. “What people need to be is understanding and gentle with them. It can be a struggle. But that is how they can now best be protected.”
The names of the girls in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
Money raised by The Independent’s Christmas Appeal helps fund Unicef’s work with former child soldiers in the Central African Republic.
Click here to donate. Text CHILD to 70030 to donate five pounds.
• £6 provides life-saving treatment for one child from fatal diarrhoea, pneumonia, or malaria, all diseases that the children are vulnerable to in the Central African Republic
• £15 pays for schooling for a child who has been rescued from an armed group – including providing all the books and stationary they need.
• £25 provides a child with all the essentials they need when they are first rescued. This ‘welcome kit’ includes clothes, underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, a blanket, mattress, and mosquito net.
• £62 provides vocational training to a child released from armed groups, providing them with a sustainable future
• £103 trains a teacher to help former child soldiers continue their education
• £150 pays for psychological support for one child who has been rescued
• £300 can buy enough toys for a centre for 50 rescued children to play with, to help them regain their childhood by having fun again
• £516 can support one child for a whole month. This covers the cost of everything they need at the rehabilitation centre, including care from dedicated and experienced staff, food, counselling, education, vocational training, and the costs for family reunification