Learn to Live: 'I saw a man shot in front of my house … Now I dream of opening schools'

‘Let’s now open their eyes to all that is possible for them to achieve’

Oliver Poole
Tuesday 16 October 2018 19:06 BST
How a War Child centre in the Central African Republic is helping children affected by conflict

Stephanie was just 12 years old when the world she knew collapsed around her. One moment all was normal: she was at her grandparents’ house helping with chores and talking about her day at school. The next, with a screech of truck wheels and the sound of guns firing, she was having to desperately flee for her life.

The cause was members of the militia army that in recent weeks had extended its control over her country. This was a force whose brutality and violence had already become infamous in a nation, the Central African Republic, which since independence from France in 1960 has seen little but coup and counter-coup as peace and stability eludes it.

Stephanie was standing outside when they appeared in her community; armed men filling the back of a pickup truck. They were chasing a local tribal leader who had turned down her road in a desperate search for safety. As Stephanie watched, he ran past her. Then she saw the militiamen shoot him in the back, and him fall onto the dirt street.

“They shot him,” she recalls. “They shot him in front of the house. I had never seen anything like that before. I saw him killed him with my own eyes.”

Stephanie lives in Bangui, an African capital city few people have heard of and even fewer would be able to point to on a map, but it is the capital of a country that should be imprinted on all our minds and hearts as the centre of so much of the suffering that has blighted the continent in recent years.

It is a place where blood diamond traders compete with ivory poachers and tribal and religious demagogues to carve out their own zones of control. Even when I was there last week, during a period that is meant to be relatively secure by Central African Republic standards, three Chinese workers were murdered, their heads sawn off and displayed in triumph by their killers.

Yet, even amid such a history of instability, the force that arrived outside Stephanie’s door that day – and that would go on to oust the president and seize control of the government – was one which was particularly feared.

Part-manned by children seized from their families in rural villages and then brainwashed through beatings and drugs to become child soldiers, its “troops” were known for enforcing order with machetes and summary executions, often forcing entire communities to flee in terror into the bush.

Stephanie found sanctuary with her family in a church. Hundreds slept and lived in the churchyard for months as the priests and nuns negotiated with the militia leaders to spare them.

Now 18, she can never forget what life was like before.

“There was only plastic sheeting to sleep on. Everything would flood when it rains. Always people were crying.”

What makes her so remarkable is that, despite all she has been through, the young woman I meet is not one to focus on the past – but on the future.

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Her conversation is filled with her pride in the grades she is now achieving at school and her plans to become a successful business executive, and her dream to open more schools for children who have not received the opportunities she has in recent years.

For that, War Child is to thank. It is at its VoiceMore centre in Bangui, which is part-funded by the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, that Stephanie has been one of the lucky children to receive special help to boost her education – and to help her address the mental scars left by what she and the other children there have been through.

It is why the centre’s project leader, Eric Mamboue, is so grateful for what The Independent’s Learn to Live campaign has already done to help him and his charges.

Last week, up to £500,000 was secured in special funding from the Department for International Development for its work. Already the children at his centre have been twinned with a school in London, with whom they are now writing a song to sing together.

But Eric wants even more to be done as the campaign enters its final stage.

“Many children when they arrive here will not even speak,” he says of his charges. “You see them standing alone. But they must not focus on what they lived through but their hopes for a brighter future so they can become the engineers, the doctors, that are needed. Let’s now open their eyes to all that is possible for them to achieve.”

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