N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - “I entered the ‘army’ by myself. Neither my mother nor father, or anyone else asked me to join. I saw the situation in which we were living — it was very hard. I entered the army to deal with the aggression we were suffering in my territory.”
He is 12 and comes from Faya, a town in the far north of Chad, though I met him at a Christian Children’s Fund (CCF) rehabilitation centre in the Chadian capital N’Djamena. Under CCF rules, I cannot use the name of the child describing his time among Chadian rebels. I have agreed to call him Mahamat.
“I didn’t have a specific job in the army. But if there was an attack I would actively participate in the battle.
“In the stable periods everything we did, like preparing food, was always done outside in the sun. And with the heat of Chad this is really hard. We also had to transport all our own baggage over the sand — what I experienced there was very difficult.
“I had a Kalashnikov and during combat I fought alongside the others. Combat became normal, so I was never scared.
“There was blood everywhere, there were people with heads cut open. ... We walked on blood, and even slept by dead bodies. So I wasn’t afraid, I became used to it.”
Experts estimate between 7,000 and 10,000 child soldiers operate in Chad in the national army, rebel and militia groups.
Globally, the U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF believes there are some 250,000 child soldiers but some experts say that is a mere estimate because it is impossible to reach some battlefields.
For those children who have left armies and militias, reintegration efforts are often difficult.
Girls — often raped, stigmatized and left with children — can drift into the sex trade while boys can become guns for hire for crime or neighboring conflicts.
Mahamat says he is satisfied with the CCF centre.
“We all have well furnished rooms. Everyone has a mattress, a blanket and a sheet. And we had entry kits — that means we were given two pairs of pairs of trousers, two shirts, a sports uniform and other things.
“We have soap, and they even gave us toothbrushes. Every day after breakfast we brush our teeth. Also we have water in abundance.
“There is a nurse who comes every day, to see if anybody is ill. He cures them and we have meals at the right times. This means we eat three times a day.
“I participated in fighting, but I know it’s destruction. Now we have this opportunity to study, and I prefer to do this than live that life in the army. I will be happy to see my family and my brothers, who are a long way away from me. I am trying to make contact with them.
“It’s very bad to recruit small children into the army. For a child who knows nothing you must teach him how to love people, not to kill them.”