The long road to acceptance for kidnap victims of rebel fighters

A programme in the Central African Republic helps former child soldiers open businesses and readjust to society

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Emilie greets us at the entrance of her newly opened restaurant with her infant son in her arms. The 19-year-old runs a small restaurant facing a busy street in Bria in the diamond-mining area of the Central African Republic. A makeshift structure crafted from wooden poles and grain bags successfully fends off the afternoon sun and seats 10 while a more sturdy structure is still under construction. Three clients have already come to try her meat in sauce and brochettes served with a generous heaping of cassava porridge.

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“Everyone needs to eat,” she says. “This way I can provide for myself and my son and have some autonomy.”

Being self-sufficient is important to Emilie, as it means a second chance at a normal life after being forcibly recruited into one of the violent armed rebel groups in the diamond-rich area around her home town of Bria. “I was going back and forth selling peanuts to support my family when I was captured by the group,” she said. “I did not go voluntarily, I never wanted to live in Aigbando.”

Aigbando is about three hours by road from Bria. It is the location of several diamond mines – and the military base of one of the country’s many rebel factions. Emilie was held there against her will for eight months. Emilie also became the wife of a high-ranking combatant who was the camp’s doctor. She washed, cooked and took care of him in exchange for protection from the other combatants living at the camp. When she discovered she was pregnant, she convinced him to let her return home to her mother to give birth. “I told him I cannot give birth in a military camp, I needed to get back to a normal environment. My real intentions were always to escape, I never wanted to be there, I was forced,” she says.

But back in Bria, she was met with fear and suspicion by her family. “They said I was associated with rebels,” she says. “It was a difficult time for me, I ended up giving birth alone. A neighbour heard me crying and came and cut my umbilical cord.”

Once the baby was born it was suggested to her that she should visit the Transit and Orientation Centre run by a local organisation called Coopi, which is a partner of Unicef. The Independent is raising funds in its Christmas Appeal to help Unicef’s work rescuing child soldiers. Coopi assists children who have escaped rebels return to civilian life – providing shelter, education, medical care and alternative means of supporting themselves.

In normal times the centre shelters 24 children ranging from aged 15 to 18, eight of whom are girls. An additional 60 to 70 children usually frequent the centre during the day. There, young people, like Emilie, who have skills and do not need to go back to school, are helped to develop small businesses geared towards their interest and strengths. “I like to prepare food, but having a restaurant involves more than that. There are risks, the food has to be well made because if people do not like it, then it will not sell. I will be left with all of it and will not be able to turn a profit,” she said. Coopi works closely with children released from the armed rebels to develop their businesses, by providing start-up kits that, in Emilie’s case, included essentials like cooking utensils and pots. They also pay the first three months of rent to help the children kick off their projects.

“We advise them on market conditions and help them develop their strategy, but they pick out their own spots. If they are renting, then we help them negotiate their rent,” says Phares Fio-Demontoan, one of the co-ordinators at the transit centre that Emilie attends.

Since giving birth to her son, Kaleb, who is now seven months old, Emilie’s relationship with her family is improving. “Being reintegrated into families and communities takes time and effort,” her adviser at Coopi says. “Once her family saw that her business was working, they saw her as a responsible person capable of taking care of herself and her child. Children who have been associated with armed groups are not easily accepted back.”

Emilie makes enough money from her restaurant to support herself and Kaleb. She is now living with her mother in the hope of being able save for the future “I want a better future for my child,” she says. “I want to send him to school and one day I hope to have my own house, so I can be independent.”

Such are the aspirations of young people everywhere. But for a former child soldier they represent an extraordinary achievement – and one that a small donation from you could assist.

All Unicef's work with child soldiers in the CAR is funded by donations. Please be as generous as you can. 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