UN-facilitated accord leads to release of some 350 children in Central African Republic

These two boys were among 357 child soldiers released by anti-Balaka militias and the ex-Séléka armed group in the Central African Republic (CAR) on 14 May 2015. Photo: UNICEFCAR/Donaig Le Du

CAR, 14 May 2015 – In the single largest release of children associated with armed groups in the Central African Republic since violence erupted there some two years ago, some 350 children have been freed following an agreement facilitated by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that will allow them and thousands of others to reclaim their lives and resume their childhood.

“Three separate ceremonies were held today near the town of Bambari during which 357 children were released by anti-Balaka militias and the ex-Séléka armed group,” the UN children’s fund UNICEF said in a press release.

More than two years of civil war and sectarian violence have displaced thousands of people in the Central African Republic (CAR) amid ongoing clashes between the mainly Muslim Séléka alliance and anti-Balaka militia, which are mostly Christian. The UN estimates that some 450,000 people remain displaced inside the country while thousands of others have sought asylum across the borders.

“After two years of heavy fighting, the release of children by these groups – on the same day – is a real step towards peace,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF’s Representative, who attended today’s ceremonies. “Violence and suffering can now give way to a brighter future for children.”

“This was the start of a process that we hope will result in the release of thousands of children associated with armed groups in the Central African Republic,” Mr. Fall added.

UNICEF estimates that between 6,000 and 10,000 children are currently connected with the country’s armed factions. This figure includes children serving as combatants, others who are being used for sexual purposes, and those working as cooks, messengers and in other roles.

Today’s events represent the single largest release of children associated with armed groups in the Central African Republic since violence erupted in 2012, according to UNICEF.

The agreement by the leaders of CAR’s 10 armed groups to release children in their ranks was signed during a national reconciliation forum held in the capital Bangui last week as the result of collaboration among UNICEF, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and the Government of the Central African Republic.

The agreement also commits the groups to ending additional child recruitment and gives UNICEF and its partners immediate and unrestricted access to the areas under the groups’ control in order to identify and verify the number of affected children and to secure their release.

The released children received medical screenings and had the opportunity to speak with trained social workers, according to the UN agency. And when security conditions permit, children with relatives in the area will be reunited with their families while others will be placed with foster-caregivers until their families can be located.

“Each of them will require extensive support and protection so that they can rebuild their lives and resume their childhood,” the agency said.

UNICEF said that the process of releasing and reintegrating the children will place additional demands on the already limited funding available to respond to the humanitarian emergency in the country. UNICEF has received only $17 million out of the $73.9 million required.