Former child soldiers join the fight against coronavirus
Civil war in the Central African Republic (CAR) has trapped thousands of children in armed groups. Those lucky enough to escape are now helping protect their fellow citizens from the pandemic.
Coronavirus: A new enemy
A crew of former child soldiers and street kids dig a well for an impoverished suburb in CAR's capital, Bangui. These youngsters are helping to improve hygiene in overcrowded communities as part of a UNICEF project. They have already installed wells for around 25,000 people. The project began before coronavirus took hold, but it's now helping CAR fight the pandemic.
Drilling for peace
A young worker stands on top of a drill as his teammates manually turn it to create a well. The project is also a form of social rehabilitation, offering these teenagers new skills and paid work as they escape their violent past. It also encourages the community to accept them. The program was set up in 2015, and is now integrated into CAR’s coronavirus response plan.
A dirty job
A pair of former child soldiers squat down to dredge out the earth by hand. There are more than 3,900 confirmed cases of coronavirus in CAR , although limited testing means that the true number is likely higher. The well-digging taskforce is now racing to install new pipes and boreholes nationwide. Almost 80% of households in CAR lack hand-washing facilities.
Winning hearts and minds
A crowd of children gather to watch the well diggers. Former child soldiers often face stigma and rejection, which can increase their chances of being recruited again. Interventions that promote acceptance are crucial. As one former child solider explained: "This work could change my life. I finally have some money. And I'm helping these communities and my country."
A scarred land
Unmarked graves on the outskirts of Bossangoa in north-west CAR hold the remains of civilians who were massacred in the conflict. After decades of instability, war broke out in 2013 when a mainly Muslim rebel coalition known as the Séléka swept across the country and toppled the president. In response, Christian and animist communities mobilised to form 'Anti-Balaka' militias.
A fraying peace deal
A rebel soldier from the powerful 'FPRC' faction stands guard at a checkpoint in CAR’s lawless north. Rebels control much of the country and, despite the signing of a peace deal last February between the government and 14 armed groups, instability persists. Unrest has been particularly bad in recent months in this region, where rival factions are clashing over control of the mineral-rich area.
'Children, not soldiers'
A UNICEF roadside sign in Bossangoa advocates against recruiting children in armed conflict. Between 2014 and 2019, more than 14,500 child soldiers were released from CAR's militias. However, an estimated 5,550 children remain trapped in armed groups nationwide, wiht many subject to violence and sexual abuse. Some are combatants, while others serve as cooks, guards or messengers.
Education against the odds
Children gather inside a makeshift classroom under tarpaulins in a sprawling camp for families displaced by the conflict in rebel-held Kaga Bandoro. More than 1.3 million people have been uprooted from their homes. On average, one in five children do not attend school. But in the worst-affected areas, the number is as high as four out of every five.
Civilians under siege
A UN peacekeeper heads out on patrol through a displacement camp in the eastern, rebel-held town of Bria. A sign at the entrance warns militants against bringing in weapons. The cramped and unsanitary conditions of camps like these also increase the risk of coronavirus spreading.
Resilience in the face of war
Civilians sit in the back of a pick-up truck while driving through territory held by the FPRC faction in north-eastern CAR. The UN warns that the country is very poorly prepared to cope with a coronavirus outbreak. The complex, sectarian conflict has ravaged CAR's weak healthcare system and forced medical personnel to flee. Today, half of the population depends on humanitarian support.
An uphill struggle
A child carrying water passes a peacekeeper near a displacement camp in rebel-held Bria. UNHCR is installing more water points in camps and explainign the importance of handwashing to residents. However, the sheer number of people are overwhelming and senior aid officials have warned that there are too few resources to meet the population's needs.
Trying to keep the peace
Women walk past a UN armoured vehicle in rebel-held Kaga Bandoro. There are fears that COVID-19 could undermine security and exacerbate tensions between communities by creating price increases and stalling aid supplies. With the presidential election set for December, this is a critical year for CAR. But observers fear hostilities will increase in the run-up to the vote.
Tackling the violators
Teenage boys play football in the dust in Kaga Bandoro’s displacement camp. While the real numbers are almost certainly far higher, more than 500 grave violations of child rights were reported last year. Efforts are underway to bring warlords to justice but widespread corruption makes it more difficult.
A glimmer of hope
A team of former child soldiers finish drilling their new well in Bangui. Therapy is out of reach for many here. But projects like this help them deal with feelings of shame and guilt and create a sense of normality. While not a perfect solution by any means, grassroots initiatives like this offer the children of CAR a glimmer of hope.