Child Soldier Recruitment Continues in Chad

They usually come at night, to the sprawling refugee camps in eastern Chad along the border with Sudan. Recruiters for Chad-based rebel groups, which are locked in bloody combat with Khartoum and its militia proxies in Sudan’s Darfur region, sometimes simply show up at the camps and new recruits, many of them still boys, come to them voluntarily.
But when there’s a shortage of volunteers, the recruiters might resort to force, according to aid workers in eastern Chad. The aid workers, who spoke to World Politics Review on conditions of anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the subject, said the recruiters also have been known to use drums, like real-life pied pipers, to lure curious boys outside, where they’re kidnapped. Destitute families have even sold their male children to armed groups, according to the sources.
The rebel recruiting tactics have fueled a continuing crisis in Chad. All sides in the country’s conflicts, including rebels and government forces, count children as young as 10 years old among their ranks. Christiane Nikobamye, from aid group CARE International, told World Politics Review that there are at least 7,000 child soldiers in Chad.
Nikobamye runs CARE’s residential school for former child soldiers out of a tidy compound in Chad’s capital of N’Djamena. Today, the school has 72 boys between the ages of 10 and 19; at times enrollment has reached 100. CARE is coy about how it takes custody of the young soldiers and from which armies, but Nikobamye said her students represent “Chad’s various armed groups.”
In order to protect the children at the N’Djamena school, this reporter agreed not to print their full names or other specific identifying information, and not to ask questions that might force the former soldiers to revisit bad memories.
On a Saturday morning in mid July, school was in session for some students while others played games or lounged on a matt under the blazing sun. A teacher instructed some older students in French grammar. Among them was Haroun, a tall 19-year-old who is among the school’s oldest students. What else has he been learning? “Morals,” he said. Nikobamye said CARE’s program attempts to balance formal education and emotional therapy with a measure of vocational training.
The former soldiers stay at the school as long as they need to in order shed the mental baggage of their military ordeals — and at least as long as it takes CARE to find their families and arrange eventual repatriation. Most stay several months. Many of the older students eventually take internships with local businesses in order to prepare for independent adult life. Haroun said he didn’t care what he did for a living after leaving the school. “I just want to be productive,” he said.
Fifteen-year-old Hassan said he has more specific plans. Eventually he wants to be a craftsman. In the meantime, he passes his free time at the school playing soccer with the other students. “Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t,” he said philosophically. “It’s just a game.”
For Nikobamye and others trying to free children from armed groups, it’s hard work with no relief. Serge Male, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in Chad, said that military recruitment in the refugee camps “continues and will continue.” He said the U.N. would be able to redouble its anti-recruitment campaigns only with improved security in and around the camps. Male said he’s optimistic that the recent deployment of 4,000 EU peacekeepers to eastern Chad will eventually result in improved conditions for U.N. operations in the region.
Nikobamye is less sanguine. “Our biggest obstacle,” she said, “is that Chad continues to be a country in conflict.”
Other aid workers, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, said that there has been progress reducing child-soldier recruitment in the Chadian army. “With the government, we can walk up and say, ‘We see what you’re doing,'” one source said.
Perhaps, but on June 20 this reporter observed several child soldiers in Chadian army service during a massive “friendly fire” incident in the eastern town of Gore. For two hours, elements of the Chadian army fought a running battle with other Chadian soldiers, each side apparently mistaking the other for Sudan-based rebel infiltrators. At least one person was killed, although N’Djamena denies this.
During the fighting, this reporter saw no fewer than nine child soldiers, several apparently around 13 years old, desert their posts. Some stripped off their uniforms and tried to hide the uniforms and their AK-47s in a Catholic mission adjacent to an army base. At least one young deserter returned to the mission the next day, with a man who was apparently a relative. The chastised young man said he was looking for his uniform.
The Abeche battle proved that the need for Nikobamye’s work will continue, perhaps for years. But for that, she said she needs more money. “This school isn’t cheap,” she said, citing the school’s $1 million annual budget for teachers, supplies, rent and security. “There’s never enough money.”
But the school has been able to afford entertainment for the boys. Nikobamye pointed out the room where they show movies some nights. “Just no movies with a lot of violence,” she said. “They’ve seen enough of that.”