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A group of displaced students with Joseph Thera, Assistant Regional Director JRS West Africa. (JRS West Africa)

Bambari, 25 July 2017 - During the past ten years, children in the Central African Republic have grown up in the context of almost permanent war. They have been recruited by the various militias as well as by the regular forces and then been sent as cannon fodder to the front lines, forced to fight for one side or the other, to carry out the most appalling atrocities and to suffer quite horrendous violence.  Despite general demobilisation demanded by all the international authorities, there are still thousands who are under the thumbs of the various military groups involved in the conflicts. In such a situation, their childhood has been sacrificed to armed conflict and they have suffered almost total deprivation of their fundamental rights.

Although, alas, many of them have been killed, those who have survived carry the physical and psychological scars of what they have been subjected to. With neither education nor training, with no job nor prospect of acquiring one, these youngsters are ideally placed to lead a life of crime and delinquency.  And one must not forget that they are the perfect candidates for yet further enrolment in the various armed forces.  They are easy prey for unscrupulous recruiters who have little difficulty in persuading them to take up arms again simply in return for a hot meal. The risk is even greater when such youngsters are separated from their families and live on the street....

Education is a right for all children, even those enrolled with the armed forces. It is the best chance they have of finding some form of normal life in the community. Given the negative effects that repeated crises have had on access to education, the Central African Republic’s official education system is not well placed to provide what children need. It is therefore imperative that sufficient possibilities be found for all children in the community, former armed young soldiers included.  

Offering an education is not just a question of building new schools.  What the children are taught must be relevant to their lives and appropriate to their needs. This is extremely important, not just for the former ‘veterans’, but also for all the children affected in one way or another by repeated conflicts.

 “Les Jeunes Espoirs de Demain” (Youth are the hope for tomorrow) are a group of youngsters - former fighters who wish to give themselves a second chance. Identified and profiled by the JRS and UNICEF, these youngsters are now in school and supported by the JRS. They are holding their own there, and certain of them are well disposed to learning a trade or profession.

There are certain common denominators that characterise the experience of the children who have actively participated in the conflicts - separation from the family, families that are mostly poor and vulnerable, poor health, the need for specific help, education and professional training, the children’s active participation.

They now live in a house rented for them by the JRS. They are organised into groups and adhere to the house rules. Without neglecting their classes, they are responsible for the daily chores (maintenance of the house and the courtyard, cooking, water supply, etc.). One member of the group is designated as the leader who handles the role of group moderator and acts as a go-between with the JRS.

They are confronted by several internal challenges, such as the dilapidated state of the kitchen and the toilets, no dietary assistance and a lack of remunerated work.

Since living in teams, they are showing positive signs of a return to a normal life. Re-establishing mutual confidence with others is a fundamental goal on which full remission is heavily dependent.

The military experience of these youngsters, coupled with the realisation of what they have lost or missed, constitute specific problems as they attempt to reconstruct who they really are in such a way that they can adapt and thus hope to integrate normal civil society. It is therefore a real pleasure - not without a certain pride - that we are able to see these youngsters re-establishing their proper identities.

ll have a burning desire to continue their education. Many express their sorrow at having missed out so far. For these reasons they never miss an occasion to show their gratitude to the JRS for having provided the opportunity to start or restart their schooling.

Not only that, but they also wish to start training for certain trades. As they so often say: “We want to help the JRS to support us”.

For all these reasons, we believe that it is essential that we continue to provide our help to these youngsters in their quest for a better life and we thank, in their name, all those people of goodwill who are prepared to help the JRS in this endeavour.

-    Abbé Serge-Hubert, Jesuit Refugee Service West Africa