Journalist and producer based in Spain working for UK press. My focus here is safe travel and tourism in Spain. I also cover current affairs, business, architecture and rural regeneration, and work / have worked for The Guardian, BBC, FT, The Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Reader's Digest, Evening Standard.
As a 13-year old soldier in Sierra Leone shooting someone was “as easy as drinking a glass of water” says Ishmael Beah. But given a place at a UNICEF rehabilitation centre and access to an education, Ishmael was able to save his own life at least. Now 26 and a politics graduate living in New York, his recent autobiography, A Long Way Gone, reminds the world that child soldiers deserve and have the potential for a much, much better life.
Day of the African Child on June 16 looks back – remembering children killed in the 1976 Soweto riots, and forward to the future faced by African children today, over 200,000 of whom (some as young as 6 and 7, with girls making up almost a third) are thought to be fighting in military forces across the continent. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that governments not only make the demobilisation of child soldiers a priority, but actively help them reintegrate into civilian life. The prospect of a generation of homeless, uneducated children carrying guns is a one France’s foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, described recently as “a time bomb threatening stability and growth in Africa and beyond”.
A powerhouse of international agencies is involved in helping former child soldiers start new lives, including the Belgium Red Cross, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) joined in partnership with local NGOs in the Multi-Country Demobilization and Reintegration Program (MDRP). While programmes are fine-tuned to deal with problems unique to different children, and different regions, the overall aims of reintegration programmes, whether in Cote d’Ivoire or Rwanda, DRC or Liberia, are fundamentally the same.
Step one is to send demobilised children home, a long journey that for many begins at a Transit and Orientation Centres (CTO) where they usually stay for around three months, under the care of mediators, doctors and psychologists, and getting basic education or vocational training. Where possible, they are placed with host families within the local community. Casimir Ubengi is one of the many willing foster parents on the IRC’s list in Kisangani, DRC: “I pity these children,” he says. “I saw many of them leaving for the frontline in their over-sized uniforms. And, now that they are back, a lot of work remains to be done to explain to both the children and the communities they came from that they all have to live together again, and forget.”
Step two is reuniting them with their families, made hard by limited road and communication networks, and the fact children returning from Liberia’s Small Boys Unit and Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army in particular, are often more feared than welcomed. “Many have spent the last three or four years killing people and are de-socialised” says John Elder, MDRP senior social protection specialist. “If the child was abducted when they were 6 and they’re coming back at 16, that’s a completely different person that the family has to adapt to.”
Agencies work with communities as a whole, increasing understanding, helping them see children as victims not aggressors, and providing technical and financial assistance for projects that will create jobs and homes for the returning children, for example in Angola, where the World Bank funded a self-build housing project on land donated by village leaders and in Sierra Leone, where the Caritas Makeni scheme funded by CAFOD, invites community businesses to train ex-combatants without payment as a contribution to the rebuilding of their community. The Makeni schemes benefit hundreds, like Aminata who was rescued by her father after being abducted by rebel fighters, is now training with a hairdresser and will receive the tools she needs to start her own business once she graduates. “I like my new job” says Jules, a 17-year old who fought for seven years in the Congo, and through the IRC has an apprenticeship repairing fridges and freezers. “Before, I destroyed things. Now I’m learning to repair.”
Step three is education. As well as the vocational training offered to older children in trades they can use – mechanics, construction, plumbing, tailoring and agriculture, all children at demobilisation centres receive basic education. “The first thing they ask when they get out of the bush or out of the rebel camp is if they can go back to school,” says Marie de la Soudière of the IRC. “We’re talking about 16, 17-year-old tough kids. I never expected that they’d be willing to sit down on benches with 10-year-olds and start all over again.”
Many governments have promised education with differing degrees of follow-through, from Liberia’s Back to School Campaign in 2003 which set out to provide schooling for 750,000 children including former soldiers, training thousands of teachers and distributing “school-in-a-box” kits to a small month-long pilot project aimed at former soldiers in DRC and the ‘Guns to Pens’ campaign in Sierra Leone. Despite a real desire on the part of so many children, (one Liberian child telling UNICEF goodwill ambassador, footballer George Weah “to hold guns is not good for children; you cannot sleep good, you cannot eat good food…now I see that I will have a good future by going to school”), according to Amnesty International, often programmes are not implemented, maintained or sufficiently funded, but left to aid organisations and NGOs to attempt to fulfil the promise – an impossible task with their limited resources.
In Uganda, Belgian journalist Els De Temmerman, stepped in to help. While reporting from Northern Uganda for the Flemish newspaper “De Morgen”, Els came across the story of girls kidnapped from a Catholic school and the nun who fought for their release. She wrote a book about it, Aboke Girls, and with the proceeds set up a foundation to pay the school fees of former child soldiers. Helped by donations from supporters in Belgium and the Netherlands,Childsoldiers / Kindsoldaten vzw, is currently funding places for over 2700 former child soldiers, each with the potential to spread the benefits of that care and education. When asked what he wanted to do with his life, James, abducted at 11, by the LRA, badly injured and blinded while fighting in the Sudan, said he would rather be dead. Five years on, after being sent to a special school by Childsoldiers, he wants to become a teacher for the blind. Several ex-soldiers have been supported through university where they’ve studied law, development studies and wildlife park management, skills they can reinvest in building a more positive future not for Uganda as well as themselves.
But perhaps the hardest lesson of all is learning how to enjoy life – be children – again. For 15-year old Alimamy Kamara, sold at 13 by his parents to armed forces in Sierra Leone, being part of the Caritas Makeni-run Wusum Ward football team – having kit, team mates and regular training sessions – doesn’t only teach him self-discipline and social skills, but gives him back self-confidence, something to look forward to, and the sense that life can actually sometimes be fun.