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From fear to hope for CAR’s former child soldiers

On World Humanitarian Day, this series of photos shows how former child soldiers are recovering from their experiences and reintegrating into society thanks to emotional support and skills training.

Former child soldiers taking part in an activity at a rehabilitation centre in Bangui
Over 13,000 children have been recruited by armed forces since the start of the conflict in CAR.

Central African Republic has been plagued by violence since 2013 when Muslim rebels seized power, prompting reprisals from Christian forces. Despite last year’s election, deadly clashes still break out between the armed groups in the country.

Today I have a small business. It allows me to help my family which makes me feel good.

Since the conflict started, at least 13,000 children have been recruited by armed groups. A large proportion are kidnapped by armed groups, but many join voluntarily to protect their communities or to avenge the death of a loved one.

In 2015, UNICEF brokered a deal with the country’s armed groups to release 10,000 children –exploited as soldiers, cooks, spies, porters, or for sexual purposes – and commit to stop further recruitment. Figures suggest that most of these children have been released but with violence ongoing, there is a high risk that these children could be re-recruited.

Staff and children dance together at the rehabilitation centre
Fun activities such as dancing help the former child soldiers recover from their experiences.

For the children freed from armed groups, returning to a normal life is not easy. They often suffer discrimination and rejection by their family and girls are especially vulnerable to abuse from community members because of the sexual abuse they suffered.

Plan International is working with local partner, Union des Techniciens en Faveur des Jeunes Désœuvrés, to provide psychosocial support and skills training to former child soldiers so they can successfully re-join society. 

A former child soldier learning to sew at the rehabilitation centre
If young people are able to earn a living they are less vulnerable to recruitment by armed forces.

At this rehabilitation centre in Bangui, 50 former child soldiers receive training in sewing and carpentry. Some have returned home to their families while others are living with foster families.

Lester, 16, is learning tailoring
Lester is looking forward to having a positive, stable future.

Lester*, 16, is learning tailoring at the centre. “This training will help me a lot in the future. The skills I learn here will allow me to have stability and help me to forget my old life. This occupation will prevent me from returning to the armed groups.”

Terese, 14, is learning sewing
Terese's ambition is to be able to take care of herself and her parents.

Terese*, 14, says, “I live with a host family because I did not feel at ease with my family. The neighbours found out I was part of an armed group and began to shun me and my family.

“Thanks to this rehabilitation scheme, I now lead a quiet life and I am learning sewing. Thanks to these skills I will live another life which will allow me to take care of myself and my parents.”

Former child soldiers performing a play
Former child soldiers perform a play for their peers at the rehabilitation centre in Bangui.

At the centre children also take part in fun activities such as dancing, singing and role play. These activities are an important part of their recovery and help them deal with some mentally distressing situations they experienced during their time with the armed forces.

Lazaro now runs his own carpentry business
Lazaro has set up his own business after completing the skills training course.

Moving on from his experiences as a child soldier has not been easy for Lazaro*, 20. “When I left the armed group I was placed in a rehabilitation centre by Plan International where I learnt carpentry,” he says.

The skills I learn here will allow me to have stability and help me to forget my old life.

“I was also placed in a foster family and everything was fine. But when the locals knew I was a child soldier, the problems began so I asked Plan International to help me join my real family.”

Lazaro* has set up a carpentry workshop thanks to the help of the rehabilitation centre. “Today I have a small business. It allows me to help my family which makes me feel good.”

Lisa is now doing an internship following the skills training course
Lisa is now doing an internship following the skills training course.

Lisa*, 16, was a member of an armed group before returning to Bangui. “I was fortunate to have a foster family and go to the training centre. I undertook 4 months of sewing training and now I am doing a tailoring internship,” she says.

“With the money I earn, I can buy food for my family or medication if someone is sick.”

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*Names have been changed to protect identities