Central African Republic conflict taking its toll on children, warn aid groups

Child in a rebel camp in the north-eastern Central African Republic Credits: Pierre Holtz/ UNICEF CAR

The now yearlong conflict in the Central African Republic is taking its toll on the country’s children. An estimated 2.3 million children are affected by the crisis that has seen more than 5,000 deaths and left more than half of the population in need of emergency assistance. Children are particularly vulnerable – facing trauma, disrupted schooling and even recruitment into fighting.

A warning from the Norwegian Refugee Council yesterday added to the increasing concerns for Central African children. It describes the continued humanitarian threat posed by ongoing fighting and its direct effects on children.

“It is clear that the children in the hardest affected areas are suffering from a high degree of trauma, I have seen the drawings of children who, when asked to draw the environment that they live in and the path from home to school, drew people with machine guns, people being killed, also children, and people being killed by knives”, said Torill Sæterøy of the refugee council.

Similar concerns are shared by Save the Children, which published a report in mid-December describing the sudden increase of child soldier recruitment since the start of fighting. Save the Children estimates that between 6,000 and 10,000 children are now members of armed groups. That is as much as a fourfold increase from the estimated 2,500 before the crisis.

Reasons for joining range from abductions to voluntary enlistment. Save the Children says the some children join armed groups because they lack access to food, shelter and water. The group is particularly concerned about the long-term effects of child soldiers. Reports show that children as young as 8 years old are participating on the front lines by carrying supplies and performing other roles to support fighters.

“When we fought, it was us, the children, who were often sent to the frontline,” said Grâce à Dieu (a pseudonym), in the Save the Children report. “Others stayed further behind. I saw many of my brothers-in-arms killed while we were fighting. I saw many things, many atrocities.”

The report goes on to say that Grâce joined an armed group at just 15 years of age. Grâce’s ordeal was both physically and emotionally taxing.

“Every morning we trained hard, crawling through the mud. The soldiers wanted to make us mean, unforgiving.”

The story of Grâce shows not only the cruel conditions faced by child soldiers, but illustrates the long-term damage done to those who have such an experience.

“Even if they leave the armed group or are released, these children can find themselves stigmatized, feared or rejected by their communities, while they can struggle to re-enter ‘normal’ life after being so long immersed in violence,” said Julie Bodin, Save the Children’s child protection manager in the Central African Republic, in the report.

The rise of violence in late 2013 caused some human rights watchers to warn about the potential of genocide. It was the result of fighting between competing rebel groups following the March 2013 coup by the largely Muslim Saleka rebels. Revenge attacks carried out by the mainly Christian “anti-balaka” fighters targeted the Saleka rebels and Muslims in the country. While there is not a purely religious divide in the conflict, it has played a role in the formation of the main groups and been grounds for attacking and killing civilians. It forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country and is why observers used the word genocide to describe what might happen.

The U.N Refugee Agency is particularly worried about a small group of Muslims who are trapped in one town. It says the roughly 500 mostly ethic Peuls are unable to leave the western town of Yaloke for fear of attacks. French and U.N. peacekeepers are providing protection and assistance at the moment, but things are starting to get worse for the people. Efforts to relocate the people from the town have proven unsuccessful over the past four months. The hope is a public call will force the government to take action to ensure the protection of the vulnerable people.

That is just one example. Roughly 2.7 million people require humanitarian assistance in 2015, says the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. At least $195 million in additional funding is required to reach some 1.2 million people in 2015, estimates the United States Agency for International Development. The global effort to respond to the crisis faces funding shortfalls, in addition to the challenges presented by fighting. Hopes remain that the still-young government can broker peace and help steer the country back on course, but progress is slow. Meanwhile, children continue to face the consequences of an unresolved conflict.

“One day, as I was going to school, I saw armed men kill a boy. Now, I am very afraid to go to school,” said one girl to the Norwegian Refugee Council .

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.