Evgeny Lebedev

My inspiring trip to meet the heroes rescuing child soldiers

Evening Standard Friday 14 December 2012

How a mission with Unicef into the heart of darkness to free children held by a rebel militia led to heartbreak for those left behind but joy for one boy who has regained his freedom

We may have arrived in the Central African Republic by Air France rather than steamboat, but the feeling of entering the Heart of Darkness was uncanny.

Night-time descents to unfamiliar airports usually see me craning at the window to make out the streetlight-studded roads, docks, an illuminated landmark or two. But not the CAR’s capital of Bangui. All you get here is syrupy blackness. The plane door opens and you’re hit by a black tidal wave of heat and humidity. ‘What have I got myself into here?’ you wonder.

Charity mission

I’d been invited by Unicef, to explore and publicise the charity’s work liberating and rehabilitating child soldiers. The Evening Standard’s sister paper, The Independent, has adopted Unicef’s work here as its Christmas charity appeal. Most people have never even heard of the CAR. It has, possibly, one of the least imaginative names on the planet. But its people live in a world of terrifying high drama — a constant fear of conflict and revolution. For its children, that means an ever-present threat of being taken by militias and forced to fight.

In the rundown relic of an airport terminal we were assaulted by a chaos of barging, shoving and shouting, all under the watchful gaze of portraits of the latest leader, President Bozize, shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. Photoshopped? I wondered. A smattering of dodgy-looking westerners were in the throng. Probably there to get their hands on the diamonds which are a blessing in potential but a curse in practice for this part of Africa.

Obscene luxury

We spent that night in the marbled luxury of the Ledger Plaza hotel. Built with money from Colonel Gaddafi, this seemed an obscene oasis of five-star luxury in the middle of the darkness. The CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 179 out of 187 by the UN’s Human Development Index. We didn’t venture into the gloomy streets of Bangui that night. It seemed too sombre: the day before, the city had been celebrating its liberation anniversary when a boat  full of people on the river sank, killing many.

Into the bush

From the fluffy bathrobes of the Ledger, we headed the next morning to a very different scene — the deep, rural bushland near the northern border with Chad. Our transport this time was a twin-prop plane piloted by a jolly Bulgarian a long way from home. We landed on a dirt track airstrip flanked with low vegetation on a rust-red soil. This was where Unicef has its transitional centre — a base where it shelters the child soldiers it has rescued and helps them recover from their mental and physical scars.

Meeting the children

Our welcome was a generous one: the kids played this wonderful party game with us. You hold hands in a circle and have to mirror the movements of your rival player as they dance around the group. It was so moving even to my cold Russian heart to see the smiles on the faces of children playing who, until recently, had been carrying guns, shooting people, or, in the case of the girls, used as sex slaves.

Funny how travel has the power to throw you totally off balance. Yesterday, just five days after that dance in the village, I was giving a speech to the similarly charming and enthusiastic teenagers of Acton High School and reeling from the thought of how different their lives were.

An inspirational man

We chatted to the former child soldiers after the game ended. Despite many being only 13 or 14, they talked so maturely of their worries about their friends still being forced to fight, their fears about their own futures, their hopes of making something positive of their lives.

What better role model could they have than Ishmael Beah? Here is a man, in his early thirties like me, who, from being a child soldier, was rescued by Unicef. He escaped the conflict of Sierra Leone and eventually made his way to New York, university and the American dream. He is now a published author and works as a UN ambassador on child soldiers.

He accompanied me on my visit and talked me through just what these kids had been through. Despite his awful stories about his time as a fighter, being injured, killing and maiming others, he is calm and peaceful. His experiences were clearly familiar to this new generation of child soldiers. But you could see the hope lighting up their faces as he told them they too could have a bright future away from the world of war and bloodshed.

Rebel country

The next day held far more danger in store. We travelled in a small convoy of UN vehicles way out into the bush. The road was so diabolical it took more than three hours to travel 50km. We were heading to a village which was taken over by the rebel CJPJ group in 2011 (the country’s rebel group names are an alphabet soup straight out of Life of Brian — a jumble of comically inappropriate words generally including “justice” and “peace”)

It was as remote as you could imagine, this village. No water, no electricity, no telephones. Children who grow up there have no idea that an outside world exists. So our arrival was clearly pretty special: all the locals, from the mayor to mothers and babies, came out to welcome us in their brightest outfits. But what will stay with me was the sight of a mean-looking rebel slouching his way through a packed children’s playground with a loaded RPG launcher on his shoulder and a grenade swinging in his other hand.

You could tell how the pecking order worked. A group of military officers sat on chairs, flanked by a 10-strong praetorian guard, all armed with that ubiquitous killing machine, the Kalashnikov. In front of the top general was laid out a tablecloth with the welcoming words: “Bon Arrivé”. Welcome to hell, I thought.

Armed men were everywhere. They posed carefully for our photographer in their sunglasses. Cool killers. The three Unicef negotiators set out into the village to find the youngsters we were there to rescue. Seeing these women work — Fosca Guilidori, Priscillia Hoveyda and Mary-Louise Eagleton — completely changed my view of Unicef, that giant, perhaps faceless brand. With brave, calm assertiveness they negotiate week in, week out with these militiamen. Clearly, the generals don’t want to let the children go. They are valuable cannon fodder — painstakingly brainwashed and then sent out in the advance parties for battle.

This leader, who I am not allowed to name, had agreed to free a dozen. But he didn’t keep to the deal. All but three had been spirited out of the village. However, the Unicef team managed to get access to two girls and a boy. They looked terrified and wary — old beyond their years — until Priscillia showed them images of their smiling friends back at the Unicef camp who had been rescued.

Sadly, though, the trio would not all make it. As we were preparing to leave, the general arrived in a pick-up truck filled with heavily armed soldiers. A crowd had started to swell around a man who was shouting furiously. It turned out his brother had been given one of the three, a 14-year-old girl, as his “wife”, and she was trying to escape while he was away fighting. The man was appealing to the general not to let her leave.

The boss buckled under the pressure. A Unicef care worker was dragged out of the truck first. He was thrown against the side of the vehicle, punched and beaten. Then, heartbreakingly, the two girls were pulled out too and taken away. It haunts me — the sight of those two sad girls disappearing to a fate I dread to think of.

A happy return

It was disappointing to return with just one child. But we were cheered by what happened when we got back to the base. As soon as his fellow escapees saw him, they flocked around and bore him up on their shoulders as that welcome dance struck up again. He laughed so much as he was hugged, kissed and held by his fellow escapees. His face began to look like a child’s again.

But his rescue story does not end there. A few days after we had said our farewells, we learned there had been a terrible battle in the region. The CJPJ had been overrun by a rival group in a battle with many fatalities. We scrambled for news of our friends back at the camp, eventually learning that the centre had been evacuated just as the militia surged towards it. The children are now sheltering with the Unicef team in Bangui. Nobody knows when they will be able to return but we can be sure that, thanks to Fosca, Priscillia, Mary-Louise and their colleagues, they can rebuild their childhoods elsewhere.