Instability threatens demobilisation of child soldiers

Former child soldiers at the Transit and orientation centre in N'djamena, following literacy lessons
Young men removed from armed forces and rebel groups take literacy courses at a transition centre in the Chad capital N'djamena (Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN)

On paper rebels and the military in Chad are in agreement: a child should not be part of any armed forces. But renewed insecurity over the last few months has triggered an increase in child recruitment, humanitarian workers say.



In May 2007, during a return to calm following a peace accord between the government of Chad and various rebel groups, the government signed an agreement with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to end the use of children in armed forces or groups.



UNICEF says in 2007 the programme, supported by UNICEF and Spanish and Japanese aid organisations, enabled 496 children to leave the armed forces and armed groups.



But since the end of 2007, with renewed attacks on President Idriss Déby’s regime the demobilisation movement has come to a halt. "Suddenly there was a feeling of war and preparation for war, and collaborative efforts [with the forces and armed groups] turned sour,” one aid worker told IRIN.



In 2008 just 59 children were freed from the armed forces and rebel groups and none so far in 2009, according to UNICEF.



Many aid workers in Chad told IRIN the recruitment of children has increased in recent months. "Armed groups continue to recruit child soldiers freely”, the international organisation Oxfam said in a recent statement.



Recruitment campaigns, carried out by "unidentified" entities, often target refugee camps in eastern Chad, where more than 250,000 people who have fled Darfur are living.



Hidden recruitment



Despite widespread accounts of child recruitment and the presence of children in armed groups, the subject remains taboo within rebel groups and the national army in Chad (ANT).



Gen Béchir Ali Haggar, commander of the inter-army military schools group and representative of the Ministry of Defence working with humanitarian actors, told IRIN “officially” there are no longer children in the army. "When [rebel groups] integrated into the army [in 2007] they took many children and some [military] leaders tried to keep them. But the children were not paid by the army.” 









Children eager to reintegrate




Efforts to remove Chadian children from the army and rebel groups have been effective, which makes it all the more regrettable that progress has halted, Désiré Mohindo from UNICEF said.


 


Older children received professional training. Some were eventually hired on and now work as tailors, chefs, mechanics or carpenters. Others received support to set up income-generating activities such as farming or small-scale business. They all had the opportunity to take literacy classes, which were carried out at ‘transition and orientation centres’ (CTO).


 


The younger children were integrated into schools, with particularly encouraging results, said Mahamat Ali Zenal Abidine, director of the CTO in the capital N’djamena, which is managed by the organisation CARE and houses 38 children. "Nearly all of them are among the best students in the class. Some of them are even top of the class.”


 


The children also receive psychological care. "Some of them were involved in ‘tribal’ wars, and they grew up surrounded by hatred for other people,” explained Abidine.


 


This is the case for Yaya (not his real name), who arrived at the centre in 2007. He recognised that while he wanted to make a fresh start and become a driver/mechanic, he did not want to return to his region in Dar Tama. "I am sure if I go, I will see the injustices, which will push me back into the rebellion.”



The staff training the children are seeing progress, particularly in the drawings that cover the walls of the centre in N’djamena. "When they arrive here the children often have violent reactions and they draw scenes of
war. Then they [calm down] and start to draw the school benches,” Abidine said.


 


The centre continues to monitor the children once they have left to "stop them from slipping into delinquent ways, drugs or alcohol, because they are still very young,” he said.



Reintegrating children who have been removed from armed groups is a long process, but it deserves to be supported, said Jean-François Basse, chief of the child protection section of UNICEF in Chad. "If donor countries had not invested in [
the programme to remove and reintegrate these children], the community would have lost 555 children.”





But a senior army officer recognised that there "could be some children". And a soldier who recently worked in the east of the country told IRIN: "There are children, but not just in the army, the rebels have them [too]. This is a war, we need everyone."



Makaila Nguebla, a member of the armed opposition and former Africa coordinator for the national alliance of armed groups in Chad, rejected the idea that rebellion would lead to further child recruits. "We are very careful with that. We cannot allow ourselves [to use children] as we are looking for international credibility,” he told IRIN.



Of the 555 children removed from armed groups since 2007, 87 percent came from rebel groups who had signed a peace agreement with the government and the rest were from the national army. 



Recruitment of children is often a problem of ignorance, Désiré Mohindo, child protection specialist at UNICEF, told IRIN. "Some leaders are not well educated. When you say ‘child’ they think of children of seven or eight and they think that at 14 one is no longer a child.”



UNICEF estimates that today there are around 10,000 children under age 18 who work for the armed forces or rebel groups in the country. Child recruitment, which previously happened mainly in the east of the country, is starting to spread to other regions such as the south, aid workers say.



Three of the five transition and orientation centres set up in 2007 to house the demobilised children have closed. The two remaining centres – one in the main eastern town of Abéché and one in the capital N’Djamena – house 80 children. It has not yet been possible to reunite these children with their families; most are from eastern Chad, where insecurity is still a major concern, so returning would mean risking recruitment again.



UNICEF started training officers and soldiers in the army in 2008 about the need to keep children out of the army. There are currently 20 trained peer educators and UNICEF intends to increase efforts in 2009 in collaboration with the UN mission in the Central African Republic and Chad, MINURCAT.



But funding is a challenge. Currently 35 percent of the 2009 requirements, estimated at US$900,000, are covered by UNICEF, and a contribution from the US government is expected in the next few days, said Jean-François Basse, chief of the child protection section of UNICEF in Chad.



"There is still interest from donors,” Basse told IRIN. But he said the continued presence of children in armed groups could put donors off. "The fact that minors can still be seen in the armed forces or groups could be seen as lack of political will to release children.”



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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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