Evgeny Lebedev

Brave women defy rebel threats to rescue enslaved children

The Evening Standard Monday 10 December 2012

An estimated 300,000 children have been recruited to fight in more than 30 conflicts worldwide, but there are few places where the problem is worse than in the north-eastern region of the  Central African Republic.

It is home to numerous rebel groups which place guns in the hands of children to fight the government for power and each other for control of diamond mines. For the last few days, I have been in this remote country to see the work being done by Unicef to help them. It has been a humbling experience to hear from those who have been released of the deprivations they suffered not only as combatants but — in the case of many girls — as sex slaves.

Yesterday, I visited one outfit that for years has terrorised local people. The CPJP (The Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace) has signed a peace treaty to demobilise, including handing over the boys and girls in its ranks, but there was little sign of co-operation when we reached its camp.

Soldiers clutching Kalashnikovs were paraded as a demonstration of its power and the children had been hidden in the bush. As Unicef tried to negotiate the release of three children, including a girl of 14 given in marriage to a far older man, the commanders attacked one of its staff and seized the girls. I used to think of Unicef as a faceless organisation, but I now appreciate the bravery of its staff after seeing the three women who led the negotiations defy threats and intimidation as they tried to free the children.

This Christmas, the Evening Standard’s sister paper, The Independent, is launching an appeal with Unicef to raise money for the release and rehabilitation of child soldiers in the Central African Republic.

They have been beaten, brutalised, forced to fight, often fed drugs to control them, and witnessed the deaths of their friends. I hope this paper’s readers will follow the reports explaining the horrifying situation and donate to this cause. These children have been deprived of their childhood.