Issa and Abdou have travelled a terrible journey together, from being used as spies by an armed group, to being brought to a care centre. Now safe, the two children are rebuilding their lives.
In Burkina Faso, the hunger crisis increases the vulnerability of communities to predation by armed groups. Some recruit from communities whose livelihoods are affected, including children and youths like Issa* and Abdou*, both 10-years-old. The number of children associated with armed forces and groups in Burkina Faso remains unknown. About 40 children, including Issa and Abdou, were found and brought to a care centre with the support of Plan International.
“Everything used to be peaceful in the village, but things heated up when some gunmen showed up” explains Issa, who remembers how tough everything became at that time. “They used to beat people, burn houses down, and kill those they captured”.
Two boys in the middle of conflict
Issa and Abdou used to live in the same village, looking after livestock, until the day the 2 friends found themselves separated from their parents, caught in a conflict they can’t understand.
“The gunmen left, then others arrived. We ran away. I don’t know why they caught us. I didn’t know where my parents were, everyone had fled” says Issa. As they recount their experience, they talk of being tied up, of being blindfolded and beaten, of being whipped and made to fight each other. Eventually they were found not far from their village. It is thought that they were used as spies by members of a non-state armed group.
The children were brought to a care centre with the support of Plan International. They have now been there for 6 months. “We were able to accompany the Ministry of Humanitarian Aid to support these children. We contributed to their food, to find them clothing and dignity kits and we ensured their transport from the place where they were identified to this reception centre there,” explains Olivia, child protection advisor.
According to the centre’s director, Ousmane*, since the onset of the crisis, families are no longer able to ensure the minimum for themselves, and some of them can expose their child for their survival. “This situation can easily force a parent to go so far as to favour the recruitment of these children, in exchange for something, in order to survive. And a child who has no food at home and who has an offer from anyone can easily give in.”
Neither Issa nor Abdou had ever been to school before. In this care centre, they go to school every day. In 6 months, they have learnt to read and write, and have a good understanding of French, the official language of Burkina Faso, even if they don’t speak it yet.
In addition to their lessons, the 2 boys take part in sports and artistic activities and take care of a garden. “We have our own vegetable garden, we take care of watering and looking after the plants. We practice sports and handicrafts. With my friend here, we play all the time!”
Social worker, Souleymane* has noticed positive changes in both children. “Compared to their arrival, they now have more confidence and even if they are not totally good, we feel that that they are at least ok here. I can only wish for those children that the security of the territory be restored immediately, and that we can find solutions to resolve these situations.”
Between hope and uncertainty
Souleymane’s co-worker, Brigitte*, points out the fact that those children should be in contact with their parents to continue their development.
“A lot of times kids say, ‘Ah, I miss my mum!’ Our hearts are often a little bruised. In the long term we want to find the traces of their parents and try to put these children in contact with their families and renew the link, if that’s possible…”
Indeed, when asked what he needs, Abdou answers: “Would it be possible for us to return to the village? I can’t see my Mum and Dad here. I want to see my Mum and Dad again.”
Brigitte is the one who comforts the children at night. “They have experienced all types of nightmares. It can happen at night that a child cries. He can be found shouting or even saying the name of a person. Given the situation they went through, we find that more or less normal.”
More help needed for children affected by conflict
As the crisis in the Central Sahel worsens, children who are poor, displaced or separated from their families are even more vulnerable to being recruited by armed groups.
According to the UNICEF, over 200 grave violations against children in areas bordering Burkina Faso and Mali were verified between July and September 2022, most of them involving the use of children into armed groups. In the first half of 2022, the number of verified grave violations against children in the Central Sahel was nearly as high as for the whole of 2021 – which in turn was 85% higher than the previous year. These hundreds of children need support more than ever.
“Protection against violence is one of the key areas of our work,” explains child protection advisor Olivia. “With funding opportunities we are setting up certain protection projects. All types of child victims of violence are supported, including children who are associated with armed forces and groups. We are living this reality, and we see that the implementation is vitally needed right now.”
*Names have been changed.