Rawan is just 13 years old, though he looks older. He was not even 11 when he left his home and became a child soldier. He – and the 40 other boys who talked to us about their experiences – are living proof of the use of child soldiers in Chad.
Children are still being used by both the army and armed opposition groups. Thousands have joined up in recent years as the armed conflict between the Chadian army and rebel groups has intensified in the region and the Darfur conflict over the border in Sudan has engulfed eastern Chad.
Most child recruits are boys aged between 13 and 18, but some are as young as 10. Most receive military training, including weapons handling, and many are involved in combat. Hazam, who was 15 when he joined a rebel group, told us: “What was the most difficult was taking part in the fighting. Many of us were my age. There is nothing joyful in the rebellion.”
Some children have been forcibly recruited. But some said they were encouraged by their communities to avenge killings and looting. Many have been driven by extremes of poverty and the lack of schools and jobs in their villages. For example, Mahamane told us that because his father was old, and there was not enough food to go round, he joined an armed group when he was 13 to help his family and his mother.
The Chadian army officially denies any involvement in recruiting and using children, but Yasin was recruited by government soldiers in late 2008 when he was 16 years old. He lived in one of many camps for the internally displaced in eastern Chad – places of lost hopes and growing despair where boys are at particular risk from marauding recruiters. A resident of one camp we visited said: “There are only old people here. All our young boys have entered the army.” Other very young boys were still visible at the end of 2010 in military convoys in the city of Abéché, in eastern Chad and even in the capital N’Djamena.
There have been efforts to demobilize child soldiers and reintegrate them into civilian life. However, programmes have been partial, ineffective and threatened by continuing violence. Few of the thousands of former child soldiers who need support to rebuild their lives have been helped.
The security situation in eastern Chad is highly volatile, and the United Nations peace keeping forces withdrew at the end of December 2010 at the request of the Chadian government. Deep poverty persists, and many demobilized children drift back into soldiering for want of alternative opportunities such as secondary education or employment.
The recruitment and use of children as soldiers has been universally condemned as abhorrent and unacceptable. Child soldiers suffer physical, social and psychological harm. The recruitment and use of child soldiers is a war crime – taken so seriously by the international community that if a state is unable or unwilling to deal with those responsible, the International Criminal Court can intervene. Yet last month Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno ordered an amnesty for crimes committed by armed groups, which means that countless abuses against children used as soldiers will go unpunished.
Despite repeated promises by the Chadian government, children are still being used as soldiers. This scandalous child abuse must not be allowed to continue.