Child Soldiers Freed In Central African Republic Struggle To Adapt

The U.N. has negotiated the release of more than 1,000 child soldiers in CAR. NPR's Lynn Neary talks to Alexandra Zavis, a reporter who met with some of the former child fighters.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

It's estimated that some 300,000 children are being used as soldiers in conflicts around the world. In the Central African Republic, there may be as many as 6,000 child soldiers, according to estimates from the UN. The civil war in that country between Christian and Muslim militia groups is behind the huge number of children carrying weapons.

UNICEF was able to negotiate the release of more than a thousand of these young soldiers. And recently, Los Angeles Times reporter Alexandra Zavis had a chance to meet some of them in the CAR. She joins us now from member station KPCC in Pasadena, Calif. Welcome, Alexandra.

ALEXANDRA ZAVIS: Thank you.

NEARY: Now when we talk about child soldiers, what are we talking about? Are these little children? Are they teenagers or all of the above?

ZAVIS: They range in age from as young as 11 or 12 through to 18 or 19 years old. And they fulfill a variety of functions within these armed groups. So it's everything from carrying weapons and fighting to carrying loads for them. In many cases, young girls have also been taken as sex slaves.

NEARY: And I'm assuming that these young soldiers are taken by force. Is that right? Are they recruited? What happens?

ZAVIS: There actually are a variety of ways in which children end up with these armed groups. Some, indeed, are taken by force. But we also met children who themselves had made the choice under very difficult circumstances to join up.

One young boy, Charly - he's now 16 years old - his father died years ago. And his only source of income was a stall that was attacked and destroyed when his town was invaded by rebel troops about a year ago. And he made the decision to join the same rebels that had destroyed his livelihood because he needed a way to survive.

NEARY: And I think Charly was one of the young soldiers who was not happy to have been released from service, that wanted to be with the soldiers still? Is that right?

ZAVIS: That's right. I mean, it's one of the things that's so tragic about the situation is that he now finds himself incapable of supporting himself. And he pointed to his sandals, which were these plastic flip-flops with huge holes in the soles, and was saying, look, you know, look what I'm wearing now. When I was with the rebel group, which was called the Seleka, I had a uniform. I had boots. I had a gun. And that gun, for him, was power.

NEARY: What other kinds of things did you hear from these kids? What did they tell you about their experiences?

ZAVIS: Well, we also spoke to a young girl named Mireille. She was taken by force. A rebel colonel spotted her by the side of the road. And she was just 14 years old. And she spent, it was about three months on a rebel base with him. And he raped her repeatedly. She used the word he deflowered me, and she repeated that over and over again. Eventually, he lost interest and abandoned her, took one of her sisters away.

She doesn't know what happened to her sister. She has no news to this day. And she now lives with the stigma of having been a so-called rebel wife. Her own mother found it very hard to take her back.

NEARY: And that's not really uncommon, is it? That families and communities are not always welcoming these young soldiers back into the community.

ZAVIS: In many cases, these soldiers have committed very violent acts within their own communities. And it can be very difficult for their own families and their broader communities to accept them back.

NEARY: Now you watched some of these former soldiers perform skits about their lives with the rebels. I guess this is to help them reintegrate into society?

ZAVIS: It's a combination of things. This particular one was actually because they were receiving visitors from UNICEF, and it was to show them what their lives had been like with the rebels. But they also do these things as part of therapy that to help them work through what they have lived and try to put it behind them.

NEARY: What do you think will become of these kids?

ZAVIS: The sad thing is that as many as one in five actually do end up rejoining armed groups. That is always the tragedy with using children in conflict is that, in many cases, you are basically sowing the seeds of your next war.

NEARY: Reporter Alexandra Zavis. Her story about child soldiers appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.

ZAVIS: Thanks for having me.

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