Around 10,000 children are still fighting alongside armed groups in the Central African Republic, more than a decade after the outbreak of the civil war, the government announced on Monday.
Marthe Kirima, Minister of Family and Gender, said in a statement that children are still recruited as fighters, spies, messengers, cooks and even used as sex slaves. While 15,000 children have escaped rebel forces, she said, many are traumatized and struggling to return to normal lives.
The mineral-rich but poor country has been gripped by conflict since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Séléka rebels seized power and forced former President François Bozizé to resign from office. The predominantly Christian militias fought back, also targeting civilians.
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The United Nations, which has a peacekeeping mission in the country, estimates that the fighting has killed thousands and displaced more than a million people, or a fifth of the population. In 2019, a peace agreement was reached between the government and 14 armed groups, but fighting continues.
The UN works to prevent children from joining armed groups and facilitate the reintegration of those released into society. She created training programs so they could become mechanics, masons, carpenters or pursue other trades.
Some former child soldiers told The Associated Press that their harrowing experiences inspired them to become ambassadors for peace.
“I took up arms because the Seleka was killed by the mother and father,” explained Arsène, who insisted on his first name only due to the sensitivity of the situation. He said a Christian rebel group recruited him when he was 14. After three years of fighting, he now tells young people not to join rebel groups.
Ousmane, another former child soldier, said joining the rebels had ruined his life and that of those around him. “What we did is indescribable,” he said.
The Dany Ngarasso Foundation, a local civil society group, called on the government to accelerate the peace process to protect child soldiers.
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“They may have fought yesterday, but they can still campaign for peace today,” said foundation director Ngarasso.