New York City- The United Nations (UN) estimates the number of child soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR,) a landlocked country with 4.6 million people, has doubled to 6,000. The turmoil in the CAR began when the Seleka rebels forces led by Michael Djotodia ousted President Francois Bozize in a coup in March. Months of hostility have adversely affected the former French colony, one of the world’s poorest countries, and ranks 180th of 186 in the U.N. human development index.
The situation in the CAR has deteriorated so badly that the instability has prevented 70 percent of the nation’s children from attending school. At least 3,500 children has been conscripted into the Muslim Selaka rebel forces and numerous young children were similarly drafted into the Christian anti-balaka forces.
Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the U.N., highlighted that the inter-sectarian violence intensified because the Seleka rebels targeted churches and Christians. The Christians, in turn, created their own vigilante and self-defense group known as anti-balaka to fight back against the rebel forces.
“Anti-balaka” means anti-sword or anti-machete. The Christian vigilante group has committed carnages of their own, and this provided Seleka rebels an excuse to perpetrate more violence. The rebel alliance, which is backed by Muslim fighters and mercenaries from neighboring Chad and Sudan, has been accused of murder, rape, mass plundering and forced expulsion of villagers from their homes. The cycle of violence has spiraled out of control and become a recruiting platform for thousands of child soldiers.
Untold numbers have been killed in the conflict. Papa Romeo described how his four-year-old son’s throat was slit open. Another woman, Zita Nganamodei, 26, took in a young child because her mother, Josephine Kolefei, 35, went out seeking medical treatment for her daughter and was clubbed to death with Kalashnikov rifles. As the struggle continues to worsen, armed gunmen have abducted thousands of young children to work as soldiers or porters.
Despite the extremely volatile situation, UNICEF has organized immunization and back-to-school campaigns to help increase the maternal and infant mortality rates. Souleymane Diabate, UNICEF Representative in the CAR, and spokesperson Patrick McCormick indicated that UNICEF is also working with armed troops to release the child soldiers.
The situation remains highly unstable and many displaced families are too frightened to return home. UNICEF teams have responded by putting up two secure spots in two displacement sites in Bossangoa, that could hold up to 600 children. These two temporary sites serve as a safe holding place for children to play and participate in recreational and art activities, as well as receive counseling.
The mounting conflict in CAR appears to run along sectarian lines as approximately half of the nation’s population are Christians and 15 percent are Muslims.
“We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion,” said Adama Dieng, the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide.
“My feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other which means that if we don’t act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring,” Dieng told the Telegraph.
As the conflict is fast escalating into genocide, a mass exodus of people ensued. About 2,000 people sought refuge at a Catholic mission in Bouca and more than half of those sheltering at the mission are children.
Father Frédéric Tonfio presides over the Catholic mission and is grappling to cope with the sudden influx. He is working with a local imam to help build bridges of peace.
“The Christians feel betrayed by the Muslims and are starting to feel vengeances in their hearts,” Tofio warned. “This is a very big challenge for the church.”
As more die in the mayhem, Tofio pleads for international intervention.
“I have only been able to count on my colleagues in the church. The silence of the international community is like they are accomplices allowing this to happen,” Tofio told the Guardian. “It’s almost as if the Sekela is stronger than the international community. Everyone knows what is going on here. Every day that we delay, more people die.”
The appearance of 2,500 African Union peacekeeping forces has brought temporary relief to the escalating conflict, but their numbers are far too small to be effective in protecting the civilians. France has 400 troops in the CAR, which is merely sufficient to protect the airport and French assets in the capital, Bangui.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has acted to place 3,000 UN forces on stand by, and asked the U.N. Security Council to immediately authorize the deployment of 6,000 blue berets to support the current African Union-led peace operation.
“The CAR is a forgotten crisis at the global level,” said Diabate. “While the world is preoccupied with what is happening in Syria or the Philippines, the situation is very tragic.”