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Abdul's market stall was a simple one. Built out of wood, it stood identical to the dozens that surrounded it in the busy central square in Bria, his wares of small bags holding salt, sugar and tea lined up in perfect lines on the counter.
But for this 16-year-old, the stall was the symbol of his hope for a prosperous – and, most importantly, peaceful – future. For just a year ago, Abdul was in the grip of one of the armed groups which plague the Central African Republic and was being made to fight for his very survival.
“I have seen terrible things,” he said of his 18 months forced to be a child soldier. “I have seen my friend’s body on the ground. I have seen blood. But now I wish to have a family. I wish to have children and to stay with my children and to build something where we can stay together.”
The reason he now has the opportunity to build such a life for himself is due to aid workers for the children’s charity, Unicef for whose work The Independent is asking for readers’ donations for this year’s Christmas Appeal. They found him when he was being held by the rebels who call themselves the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace.
The CPJP is one of the armed bands battling for political influence and control of the local diamond trade who in the last few weeks have once again thrown this remote former French colony into a fresh bout of bloodshed and instability. Unicef managed to negotiate Abdul’s release and his transport to a rehabilitation centre in N’dele, and then onto Bria. And it was Unicef which, once Abdul’s worst physical and mental scars had been healed, provided him with the skills and materials he needed to stand as an independent small businessman.
“They taught me skills at the centre,” the boy explained. “They gave me a kit which is the equivalent of around 60,000 Central African francs (£75). They saw I was doing well so they added another 30,000 Central African Francs and I also contributed to my little business to grow bigger. So my business is doing well.”
Unicef knows that for the child soldiers it saves to truly recover, they need to be given the means by which they can support themselves. Otherwise they risk being drawn into prostitution, if they are girls, or the exploitative world of diamond mining, if they are boys – or even risk being re-recruited back into the armed group as there they know they will receive food and some shelter. The Central African Republic is extremely poor. The average wage is just over a pound a day. One of the reasons the children often stay with the armed group after they were taken into it is they get regular meals, which often would not have been the norm at home.
Abdul’s parents, for example, scratched a living searching for diamonds. They were extremely poor – and what they did have was regularly stolen from them by the armed groups rampaging through the area. Security – or at least the illusion of it – is another carrot that the men with guns promise the kids they recruit. Providing economic self-sufficiency is therefore the key final stage in the charity’s rehabilitation programme. For the youngest children that involves providing continued care and focusing on their education so they can be brought back to a level of schooling to enable them to re-enter the national school system.
For older children, like Abdul, it means giving them a trade. Courses on offer include motor mechanics, nursing and running a small business. One boy told me, for example, how he had noticed a gap in the market for an on-street mobile phone charging service. The country is so underdeveloped that few houses have electricity. Mobile phones, however, are ubiquitous. What was needed was a stall where they could come and charge them up for a small cost. Unicef sourced him a small generator and the basic funds and equipment he needed to fulfil his ambition.
The recent instability in the country, which has seen thousands of people displaced as rebel troops – hostile to the government – press south towards the capital Bangui, has made Unicef’s job harder yet only more important.
However, one need only listen to those whose lives and families have been torn apart by the armed groups who prey on the children and use them for their own military ends to realise what is at stake.
Jeremiah is the brother of Assane, 15, whose release was described in the article which launched The Independent’s Christmas Campaign. He has experienced just what it means to have your relation taken from you, and knows exactly how important the work Unicef does in securing children like Assane’s return is.
“When I learned my brother had become involved with an armed group, I was heartbroken as if his death was announced” he said in the home he now shares with Assane in Bangui. “That day I remained home and was paralysed by the news. It was really hard for me, I was certain he would be killed.
“When I heard that Unicef was going to release child soldiers, I thought, ‘Thank you, my prayers are answered’. Then the dream became reality. Assane arrived at home. It was very emotional. I could not help but cry. Truthfully, I cried because I missed him. What a joy that day was and we celebrated as if Assane has been resurrected.
“I hope he will now complete his studies. I’m sure he can succeed with my support. I think with his courage and determination, he will one day be of great service to his country. Unicef must continue its programme to release child soldiers and reunite them with their families – to give them a chance to succeed and earn a living in other areas besides taking up arms. My brother shows that it is possible.”
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