Evgeny Lebedev

New year, new crisis for war zone children

Evening Standard Wednesday 2 January 2013

New Year’s Eve was a particularly raucous affair in London this year. The city bade farewell to an extraordinary 2012 with Olympic gold medal-standard fireworks that knocked the rest of the world’s efforts right off the podium.

But in the capital of the little-known Central African Republic, the difference could not have been more stark.

There, a curfew has just been imposed banning its citizens from the streets after 7pm. Instead of fireworks and cheers, it was silence and darkness.

Rebel forces are amassing around the city, which is called Bangui, having swept down from the remote north of the country. They are now less than 50 miles outside the capital. There are reports of attacks on some inhabitants in the outskirts and Westerners have been evacuated.

Why am I writing about this latest conflict in such a faraway country? Because the crisis its people are facing deserves our attention. Particularly the crisis facing its children.

I visited the Central African Republic last month after being approached by Unicef to help publicise and raise money for their efforts in freeing children from the rebel armies waging war in the diamond-rich regions of the country.

Thousands of children in this part of central Africa are abducted or forced by other means into joining the roving armies of militia groups, where they are brainwashed into a life of witnessing, suffering and committing horrific violence.

We found this theft of a generation of children’s childhood so appalling that we made the issue the Christmas and new year charity campaign of the Evening Standard’s sister newspaper, the Independent.

When I was in the Central African Republic I was able to visit the Unicef camp far out in the bush where its workers were helping to rehabilitate former child soldiers back into civilian life.

I watched as Unicef’s staff helped these youngsters learn how to play, dance and sing again. To behave like what they were — children.

What a difference a few weeks make. Just days after I left, the rebel advance forced  Unicef to evacuate the children they were caring for — some 64 of them at the time — to the relative safety of Bangui.

That is where they are now, but with the rebels threatening the city, these are extremely worrying times. The militias’ advance over Christmas and the new year was particularly rapid.

Although the rebel coalition claimed today it had ordered a halt to the advance on the city, the situation is still deeply troubling for the youngsters in the Unicef base at Bangui, as it must also be for the brave staff who remain with them, giving them the love, counselling and education they need to become normal, playful children again.

Unicef’s deputy chief in the country, Mary Louise Eagleton, with whom I travelled while I was there, says her team will continue working with the children through the current fighting and, when stability returns, will be back in their communities helping them reintegrate.

When the hard fighting ends, Unicef will also return to the field again, negotiating with the rebel generals once more to set their child soldiers free.

But it all costs money. Indeed, the current fighting means your donations are more vital for these children now than ever.

So please, while you return to your workplaces this week, remember their plight, and that of the thousands of other child soldiers still being forced to fight. And please, donate whatever you can to our campaign. With your help, for these children, 2013 will be a better year.