The boy is 15 years old and speaks softly, almost meekly, when I ask him why he has joined a militia in the Central African Republic (CAR). He and his fellow soldiers are camped out on the outskirts of the capital city of Bangui, and he clutches a wooden bow and arrow as we speak. He is surrounded by other boys, older but also still in their teens, clad in tattered basketball shorts, their eyes glazed over from drugs and alcohol. They egg him on and shout at him to behave like a warrior.
“We were here in our neighborhood having a normal life when they came and started killing us," the boy says. "This is why we are out for revenge."
The child soldiers have given themselves nicknames — Anaconda, Tony Montana, Angry Lion — and they all declare that they are killers ready to strike. The boy, who calls himself B-13 — he has it shaved into his head — is a member of the anti-balaka, the mostly Christian militias that rose up in CAR last year in response to attacks from mostly Muslim ex-rebels. When I met B-13 in December, the anti-balaka were well on their way to overthrowing the government, which had been put in power only nine months before by those same rebels, known as the Séléka. Both groups have wreaked havoc in CAR over the past two years, decimating the population and killing thousands. Among the fighters are an estimated 6,000 child soldiers, like B-13.
In a conflict with little regard for international human rights standards, Souleymane Diabaté has found himself in the awkward and challenging position of negotiating the release of these child soldiers. As the UNICEF representative in CAR, Diabaté spends his time meeting with commanders of these brutal groups, convincing them it is in their best interest to let some of their best soldiers go.
When I met him in New York last week, Diabaté was exhausted, having left CAR two days earlier to speak at the United Nations. Calm and collected, he seems the perfect person to negotiate with hopped-up soldiers, capable of imploring them to respect the rules of war. He laughs as he tells me about the time he was on a conference call in Bangui with UNICEF colleagues in New York and a stray bullet pierced his notebook.
Diabaté arrived in CAR in September of 2012, before the Séléka had taken power. He describes his first foray into negotiating the release of child soldiers in such straightforward terms it almost seems to me as if persistence and polite lecturing would be enough to convince the most hardened commanders to come to their senses.
Diabaté had been in contact with the Séléka since he arrived; when they were gathering about 60 miles from the capital, he called them and said he wanted to talk. UNICEF had maintained a presence in the country for decades, so the commanders knew the organization's reputation, Diabaté said. “When I reached them, they were cool, gentle,” he told me. “But when I started talking about the release of child soldiers, their faces changed completely.”
According to Diabaté, commanders are often reluctant to part with child recruits because they're some of the best fighters. “They didn’t want to release the children because they're known for being very good soldiers. They listen, they follow instructions, and so on."
And so the Séléka commanders pushed back. They told him they understood Diabaté's position, but that they were in a war. Diabaté warned them that the international community was watching and that using children in battle was a crime.
A few weeks later, he went to meet them again at a large gathering of commanders. He was greeted with hostility, but identified a few higher-ups that seemed more open to his messahe. They told him they would call him. Two days later, one of the commanders called and said they would release some of the children, but not yet — they wouldn't tell him why. Not long after that phone call, the Séléka attacked Bangui and overthrew the government.
A few weeks later, after things had calmed in the capital, Diabaté went to meet with Michel Djotodia, the leader of the Séléka who subsequently became the CAR's president. Djotodia was receptive, but again Diabaté was told that he would receive a phone call at a later date. After two weeks passed, Djotodia called him and told him to come to the presidential palace. Still a bit apprehensive, Diabaté showed up not knowing what to expect. But Djotodia had gathered 50 children he said he found after inspecting the army barracks, some as young as 10 years old. Diabaté was free to take the children to one of UNICEF’s camps.
Securing their releases is only the first part of lengthy process. After the children are freed, they are sent to transit cramps where psychologists help them deal with their trauma. After that they are trained in vocational skills before being reunited with their families or reintegrated into their communities.
I asked Diabaté if it seemed rather hopeless to do this in CAR, where so many communities have been entirely destroyed and there are few job opportunities. He brushed the concerns aside, saying that this sort of training can mean everything to someone there.
As for the 50 children whose releases he secured, Diabaté called it a symbolic gesture, saying that he knew there were many more child soldiers in their ranks when he met with Djotodia. Since then, UNICEF has secured the release of 1,035 child soldiers, 245 with the Séléka and 790 with the anti-balaka. Generally, the children aren’t released because the commanders have a change of heart. Rather, a dwindling food supply and poverty motivate them. Two weeks before he left, Diabaté met with some anti-balaka commanders. “They are ready to release some children, because they have to feed them, and it is not so easy today,” he said.
In fact, some children have actually joined armed groups because they have no other options. “I met a young girl, and she said she was going to school, but due to the fact that teachers were not paid, they didn’t come,” Diabaté said. “When the Séléka entered her village, she followed them, because it was the only way to get food.”
The economy is devastated, most schools in CAR have been closed, and food, already somewhat scarce before the current conflict, is difficult to come by. Currently one child in six does not survive past his or her 5th birthday. Exacerbating matters, many of the farmers and traders have fled the country, so crops have not been replanted. NGOs are expecting the rainy season to coincide with a severe food shortage. “Here in CAR, more children will die from malnutrition and related diseases than from bullets,” Diabaté said.
Many of the child soldiers are forced to join and are threatened with death if they abandon their posts. Of particular concern are young female combatants. Diabaté says that both the Séléka and anti-balaka have kidnapped girls and held them as sexual slaves, while others are made to cook and clean. For this reason, it is even harder to secure the release of girls. “It’s very complicated,” Diabaté told me. “Even when you go discuss with the commander, they don’t want to release the girls because they are utilized like slaves."
In a separate report issued this week, World Vision child protection manager Edouard Ndong said that one militia in the northwest town of Boali has nearly 1,000 children in its ranks, 150 of which are girls between the ages of 12 and 18 years old. The statement said that “children report that they are involved in militias because they are not going to school, don’t have anything to eat, or have no family to take care of them.”
Unfortunately, Diabaté does not see the situation improving. He confirms that he has heard rumors of the Séléka planning to march back to Bangui in an effort to retake the capital. “I won’t be surprised to see them," he said. "It seems like the Séléka fighters are willing to come back to take revenge.”
The Séléka, scattered around the north, recently told Reuters that they had selected a new commander and were planning to regroup. Despite greater numbers of international troops in CAR, it appears Diabaté won't run out of work anytime soon.
Follow Danny Gold on Twitter: @DGisSERIOUS