Ishmael Beah Visits Central African Republic

29/08/2012 – Thousands of child soldiers are serving with armed groups in the Central African Republic. While the United Nations is assisting some of these children, helping them regain their lost childhoods is not always easy.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), reports IPS news, parents willingly sign their children over to armed groups in exchange for protection and other benefits. As many as 2,500 boys and girls are believed to be serving as child soldiers across the country.

Despite a United Nations (UN) mandated order for the removal of children from armed forces, only three out of the eight groups operating in the CAR have agreed to action plans on the issue.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child calls on governments to protect children from recruitment into state and non-state armed groups. Despite the fact that all countries in the world save three have signed onto this convention, there remain as many as 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. Most of them live in African countries.

Even with release and demobilization, the road through rehabilitation to reintegration can be a gruelling one.

“You had this power of the weapon—some of them were lieutenants—and all of a sudden you're just a child again, trying to figure out what to do with your life,” explains Ishmael Beah, who is working with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to help child soldiers make the transition from soldier to child.

Evidence from previous civil wars has shown that some child soldiers are even rejected by their communities because of the horrific acts they have committed. Many youth have missed out on school and need additional training or assistance finding employment.

Ishmael Beah is the first-ever Advocate for Children Affected by War for the UNICEF. He recently returned from a trip to the CAR where he saw the release of ten child soldiers in the northeast town od N’dele. The children were freed by the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) as a show of commitment to the peace agreement recently developed with the CAR's government last week.

The children released from their duties are given psychosocial counselling, vocational training as well as education. After spending some time at the transit centre, the children will be reunited with their families or placed in foster care.

But, parents' willingness to see their children become child soldiers makes it difficult to negotiate their release, said Mr. Beah.

“When you arrive in N'dele you understand how it is possible for an armed group to operate there . . . Poverty is very stark, there are no resources or opportunities,” said added in an interview published by IPS.

Mr. Beah is a former child soldier himself, having been forced to participate in the hostilities of Sierra Leone’s civil war during the 1990s. Eventually released and rehabilitated, Mr. Beah is now an ambassador for UNICEF, raising awareness about the issue worldwide.

“You cannot forget, I cannot forget, I just learn how to live with it,” he said in the Voice of America.

Mr. Beah published his best-selling memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier in 2007.