One doesn’t easily forget the look in Habiba’s eyes. It’s the look of a seven-year-old child prematurely aged, of an innocent hurled into the violence of war; a look of bottled-up pain, anxiety and fear; a look that accuses and asks why.
Habiba speaks rarely. Not much is known about her, or how she came to live with relatives in the Muslim PK12 quarter of Bangui. Aid workers from Unicef know she is from Bossembele, to the northwest, and that she belongs to the Peuhl minority, livestock herders who are usually Muslim.
Last December, the Christian anti-balaka militia attacked the Muslims of Bossembele. Habiba’s family sought refuge in a mosque. Gunmen surrounded and opened fire. A bullet ripped into Habiba’s left thigh. In the resulting panic, the child was separated from her parents, now believed to be in Chad.
Someone removed the bullet and sutured Habiba’s wound, leaving a six-inch scar. She still walks on crutches. The nightmare has followed her to Bangui, where militiamen fire bullets or lob grenades into the red mud brick houses of PK12 almost nightly.
Half the population of the Central African Republic are under 18, and they are the first victims of this war.
"If they're not recruited into armed groups or maimed or killed, they can fall ill from preventable deadly diseases such as cholera, measles and pneumonia," says Linda Tom, spokeswoman for Unicef in Bangui.
A few miles away, another seven-year-old girl, Gracia Dongo, is recovering from bullet wounds at Bangui Paediatric Hospital, the only children's hospital in the country. Gracia has been displaced, wounded and impoverished by the war – and she's one of the lucky ones.
Gracia’s family used to live in PK12, where Habiba stays. They had to flee because they are Christians. The private school which Gracia is so eager to return to had re-opened in mid-February, after months of closure. Her father, a customs officer, was driving her to class in the morning when they passed a convoy evacuating Muslims from Bangui. Christian militiamen often attack the convoys, and the African peacekeepers who escort the convoys return fire.
Father and daughter were caught in the crossfire. Bullets shattered metatarsals in both Gracia’s feet. Her father was hit in the elbow.
Gracia’s feet are still encased in plaster. Sometimes, there’s a hard look in her eyes. But ensconced on her hospital bed, wearing her favourite fuschia satin skirt, Gracia laughs and smiles, because her mother Sidonie is with her. Her father was paid in March, for the first time in six months. The Dongos survived on charity from friends and relatives, and “by the grace of God”, Sidonie says.
One is more likely to find Central African children in the squalor of refugee camps, in hospital or fighting with the militias than in school. Beggar urchins swarm around foreigners in downtown Bangui.
“You come to Central Africa and you don’t give anything to the Central Africans?” they shout aggressively through car windows.
Children are deliberately targeted in this war, as if killing the young were a way of wiping out the other religion. Doctors at the paediatric hospital say there is no other explanation for the many bullet wounds to the head and chest, and the machete slashes on the bodies of children. At least two children have been beheaded.
“Every child in CAR has been affected by this war,” says Judith Léveillée, deputy representative of Unicef in Bangui. “They suffer from the cumulative effect of decades of failed government. Even before the crisis started, a child under age five died every 21 minutes in CAR, and 40 per cent of children suffered from stunted growth.”
Crops and the food distribution system have been destroyed. Malnutrition has sky-rocketed, further weakening the immune systems of children. Among those treated in the camps, 40 per cent have contracted malaria – CAR’s biggest killer. Twenty per cent are stricken with severe respiratory infections; another 20 per cent with diarrhoea.
Mothers transmit their suffering to their children. In the past three month, NGOs received 300 complaints of rape in the refugee camps that house 200,000 people in Bangui. “And that is only those who’ve come forward,” Léveillée says. “You can imagine the horrors that go on there. Unwanted children become neglected children, who will not be loved.”
Violations against children
The UN Security Council has defined six grave violations against children, all of which are considered war crimes. They are: killing and maiming; recruitment or use of children as soldiers; sexual violence against children; attacks on schools or hospitals; denial of humanitarian access; abduction. All six violations have occurred in CAR.
Unicef has negotiated the release of 435 of an estimated 6,000 child soldiers.
“Children are drawn to militias because they’ve lost their parents, because they want hot meals, because they’ve been enrolled by force, or want to rally a cause,” says Léveillée. “Unfortunately, children make good soldiers. They don’t think twice before pulling the trigger. They don’t question orders.”
CAR's main militias, the Seleka and anti-balaka, both use child soldiers. And an estimated 50 children are fighting with the Lord's Resistance Army, the cult led by the Ugandan Joseph Kony and present in southeast CAR since 2008.
When the Seleka were in power in Bangui, Unicef impressed upon them that using child soldiers is a war crime that must be reported to the Security Council. The UN agency gained authorisation to visit militia camps, where they drew up lists of child soldiers, including girls who had been beaten, raped and were sometimes pregnant.
Unicef provided the child soldiers it frees with civilian clothes and takes them to its “transit orientation centre”. Its location is kept secret for fear of attack.
“It’s a basket case of horrors,” says Léveillée. “There are mentally handicapped children who’ve been raped. The CAR has no structures to care for them.” The country desperately needs a system for the protection of children, she concludes. “It’s not like distributing jerrycans or soap. It’s a long-term investment, and you have to follow up every day.”