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Robert was a tough guy. His gun never left his side. Indeed he was so much of a soldier he even slept with his gun. The problem was that he was only 15. Then one day, after months in the African bush, his mother came. And everything changed.
Ask why there are so many child soldiers in need of rescue in the scrubby bushlands of the north-east region of the Central African Republic and you will be given one word in answer: diamonds. Nature scattered the rocks liberally across the country in alluvial deposits spread thinly across two vast river systems. Around the Kotto River, two large militias struggle for control of the precious resource.
In theory the two rebel groups – the UFDR (Union of Democratic Forces for Unity) and the CPJP (The Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace) – are fighting the forces of the Government.
But in reality they are battling for dominance of the diamond domains. And the rival rebel commanders see children, easily manipulated and lacking the knowledge that stokes fear, as the ideal warriors.
There is only one street here in the little town of Aigbando, which is reached by a barely visible dirt track through the bush 20 miles north of the regional capital, Bria. The centrality of the mining business to its survival is clear from the number of diamond merchants – the outline of a cut stone painted on their entrance doors.
Ruled by whim
One of the town’s officials brought a wrapped-up piece of paper to our table and carefully opened it to reveal the product of all this struggle: half a dozen dull pebbles, each little larger than a Tic Tac, that lay opaque as sea glass in one of the paper’s folds.
They may be dull, but it is these stones that brought the warlords to Aigbando. In 2011, men from the CPJP stormed the town and seized control. A third of its citizens fled, the rest staying to be ruled by the whim of their new commanders.
Its soldiers man the barriers at the routes leading in and out. Others stand guard near the town’s sole diamond tax office, ensuring the necessary dues are cut. Sentries are placed at the mines to see what work is done. On the surrounding paths leading through the bush, its forces rob miners of what stones they have.
In September last year the fighting between its men and those from the UFDR spread all the way into Bria. Pitch battles were fought in its streets. So many dead were left when both groups finally retreated that the locals tell of seeing pigs eating the bodies.
Control on such a scale requires manpower, which is how the children become involved. Rudolf Mbale Yosua, 48, the director of the Unicef-funded child soldier rehabilitation centre in Bria, explained why the rebel group’s commanders consider them the perfect cannon fodder.
“The children often succeed where adults fail. They have no fear and obey blindly. That is why they are often put at the front. They are used as programmed machines to do wrong,” he said.
That programming is at the heart of the callousness of the rebel groups – and it is why the children to whom they give guns so need Unicef’s help. Keven Bermudez, the Bria’s centre’s Spanish-born mental health counsellor, explained how such indoctrination involves them being dehumanised so they will follow the most barbarous orders without question.
“First there is a phase of ideological indoctrination in which they are taught to demonise the enemy. This also involves putting them through difficult endurance challenges such as days without food or sleeping in the mud. Then opportunities are created where they can become aggressive and show no consideration.
“In Sierra Leone, children were forced to kill one of their friends because they had betrayed the group in some manner. Here we have heard about the destruction of villages and the theft of animals and other property. This is all to turn them into merciless warriors. They are punished for the slightest misconduct. Girls would be tied to posts, sometimes beaten to death. We know of two cases where women were beaten to death.”
In the rehabilitation centre, a group of boys released from the CPJP a fortnight ago explained how they had been recruited. One, whom I will call Robert, was 15 when he first had a gun put in his hands. His family had been miners and his father and older brother were killed by the UFDR for the stones they had.
“The UFDR came to our mining site,” he told me. “They left with all our belongings. I went back to the city, where I had a little money. When I went back to restart mining, the UFDR ambushed me again and took my stuff.”
Robert turned to the rival CPJP for help. But they duped him. Once in their ranks he was subjected to brutal treatment. “In the bush we were punished terribly in ways that were unfair. We were punished for laughing. We were punished if we fell asleep, even at 4am. In attacks we had to walk on foot carrying heavy loads. Nobody washed themselves. Health was bad.”
But Robert is one of the lucky ones. He was rescued by Unicef, the leading children’s charity being supported by this year’s Independent Christmas Appeal. It negotiates with both rebel groups for the release of child soldiers and girls taken to act as sex slaves.
The first night at the Unicef rehabilitation centre, he cried as he lay on his bunk. He used to spend all day with his weapon. He used to sleep with his weapon. He could not see how he could now survive without it. But old friends reassured him that he would be safe here. “I’m so happy to wake up without any worries and to begin to forget the past. I feel reassured that I’ll do OK. I can count on the centre and everyone here to help me rebuild my life and go back to my community.”
Not long after he arrived his mother came to visit. “It was amazing to see my mother again,” the boy said. “She thought I must be dead.” The centre’s psychologist, Keven Bermudez, was on hand to monitor their first meeting. He saw what happened as testament to the importance of the work he and his colleagues are undertaking.
“It was only a few days after he left the camp,” he explained. “Children who have returned from a lengthy period in the fighting forces or armed groups build a very tough façade and they need to establish their status and their authority to avoid harm.
“They are very mistrustful and feel threatened by nearly everyone. But when Robert saw his mother he turned suddenly into a little boy, his body language totally changed and he was so pleased to see her.
“In the end they are children and they are very fragile, very tender. They really just want to establish trust with an adult to be who they really are, and that is children.”