Rehabilitating child soldiers is a tough job

It is a simple matter to give a child a gun, drug him up to the eyeballs and tell him to kill your enemies.

But Father Henry de Penfentenyo, a Roman Catholic priest who runs a youth centre in the rebel-held north of Cote d'Ivoire, says it takes his large team of carers several weeks, and usually several months, to rehabilitate each one to the point where he or she can be sent back home safely.

"It depends on the development of each individual," the French missionary told IRIN. "The one who stayed with us for the shortest time was only here for a month and a half for stabilisation and guidance…the length of time also depends on the family and how long it takes them to face up to their responsibilities towards the child."

The church-run Children's House in the rebel capital Bouake, is currently caring for seven children aged between 13 and 18 who formerly fought with the rebel army or were recruited to help support it.

All of them have been there for the past 11 months, but are due to be sent home shortly.

"We offer the children a stabilising influence," de Penfentenyo said. "We give back to them the hope of building a future that is worthy of its name, which they lost in the war, whatever their degree of involvement in it. The activities include a lot of sport and we try to teach those who are past primary school age how to read and write."

The former child soldiers also receive intensive counselling from 15 carers and a trained psychologist.

Perhaps even more importantly, the Children's House also supervises the education and entertainment of several hundred other kids to try and prevent them from falling under the spell of those who carry guns. It pays school fees for 180 of them.

"These are not children who have gone to the military camps, but who will end up going there if we don't do anything for them," de Penfentenyo said. "A child who sees his brother go to the checkpoint every day will end up doing the same thing. We prefer to do preventive rather than curative work."

Violent, excitable and deeply superstititious

The carers of the former child soldiers said their charges were violent, excitable, deeply susperstitious and easily sexually aroused by the sight of women.

They had only the vaguest notion of what they were fighting for. But most were proud of their military achievements and expressed nostalgia for the prestige and power that a gun once gave them.

"I spent five months with the FN (the New Forces rebel movement)," said Philippe, who comes from the "Wild West" of Cote d'Ivoire and is now 15.

"It wasn't a political war for us but a tribal war," he explained simply. "I am a Yacouba and we were fighting against the Guere…I had a Kalashnikov and I fought at Toulepleu. I used to shoot people in the legs."

Abdoulaye, 17, from the northern town of Ferkessedougou, also portrayed the civil war, which erupted two years ago, as a tribal conflict.

"They wanted to kill people because of ethnic problems," he told IRIN. I am a Senoufo and they wanted to kill Senoufos," he added.

The Senoufo are a large ethnic group in northern Cote d'Ivoire and southern Mali, whose members include Guillaume Soro, the leader of Cote d'Ivoire's rebel movement.

All the child soldiers encountered by an IRIN correspondent who visited the rehabilitation centre said they had joined the ranks of the military of their own accord.

Biman, 15, said he had joined up because his parents were Malian and President Gbagbo had been persecuting people of immigrant origin. "I decided to fight because we really wanted to get rid of Gbagbo. He was bugging our parents," he said.

Not all child soldiers were actual combatants

De Penfentenyo said that most of the Ivorian child soldiers who passed through his rehabilitation centre were not so much combatants as auxilliaries and hangers-on with the rebel forces.

"Most of the kids in the centre haven't actually fought. They never wore a uniform or carried a gun," he told IRIN. "You shouldn't really speak of child soldiers so much as children who have more or less been involved on the fringes of military activity. People think about what happened in Sierra Leone and Liberia. When you talk about child soldiers you form a mental picture of young Liberians, but the kids here are not really like that."

Abdoulaye described how he simply spent 13 months guarding a roadblock with three other child soldiers.

However several others said they had been involved in real battles.

Thirteen-year-old Lassina, who is now back at primary school, said he became so scared by the gunfire and the killing, that he was eventually sent away from the frontline.

But Moussa, 15, told IRIN that after overcoming his initial fear, he began to enjoy the prospect of battle.

"I was in charge of the arsenal. When there was fire-fire, it was me who handed out the guns," he said. "I was at the front in Man (in the west of Cote d'Ivoire) and I wouldn't be afraid to go back there. In fact I would rather like to do so because there we were earning money and it didn't really make you afraid. I was only a little bit afraid the first time (we went into battle)."

The 15 carers and supervisors at the Children's Centre are mainly students who were left idle when the universities and colleges in northern Cote d'Ivoire shut down after the outbreak of civil war in September 2002.

However, the child soldiers also receive counselling from a qualified psychologist.

"The psychological work is all about love and affection," de Penfentenyo said. "We have to understand the difficulties of the child who has broken the links with his family. We have to make him aware of his problems in order to try and find solutions to them. We spend a lot of time with the kids."

The Children's House can handle the rehabilitation of up to 50 former child soldiers at any one time, although De Penfentenyo is reluctant to say how many had passed through its doors since the conflict began or who referred them to his centre.

Sometimes the children get out of hand

The carers described their charges as violent and temporamental youths, who were often high on drugs when they were sent to the frontline and who still thought of themselves as real soldiers.

"Children who have cracked under the strain of war are prone to sudden outbursts of violence," said Gregoire Tchobo, one of two carers who looks after the former child soldiers at night in their hostel.

"Sometimes we can no longer manage," he added. "They carry knives and we have to deal with very difficult situations. Sometimes we have been forced to call in the FN. When they see their military chiefs, the kids calm down. They identify with them. They think they are still in the armed forces."

"They deny that they used to take drugs, but in fact they were drugged," Tchobo said. "They were either given injections or they were handed amphetimine tablets."

Tchobo, 28, said many of the former child soldiers still felt themselves to be invincible warriors on a mystic mission who were protected from harm by the magic charms they insisted on wearing.

"The children wear amulets to protect themselves," Tchobo said. "For them it is a mystic war. They regard themselves as invincible. They are very difficult to control. They get violent and hysterical and the sight of women turns them on and sends them into a frenzy."

After eight months of fierce fighting in Cote d’Ivoire, a truce was finally agreed on 3 May 2003 which left the country partitioned.

Cote d’Ivoire remains today in an uneasy situation of no war, no peace, in which none of the underlying issues that led to the rebellion have been resolved, despite an agreement in principle for fresh elections to be held in October 2005.

Father de Pentenfenyo, who has been working with children in Cote d'Ivoire since 1990, said there were no reliable estimates for the total number of child soldiers in the country.

But he expects a lot more to be demobilised shortly, if a long delayed disarmament programme really gets under way on 15 October as planned.

The priest said the Children's Centre had already reunited several children with their families.

Despite the difficulties involved in helping these junior combatants to return to civilian life in a divided country, about five or six had successfully been sent to join their families who were now in Abidjan on the government side of the frontline, he noted.

"We have partners in Abidjan who continue to monitor them and keep up the work. It is going quite well. The overall outcome is positive," he said.

Most of the kids who come under the wing of the Children's House in Bouake are sent to school, but for those over the age of 15, the centre organises vocational training.

One told IRIN he wanted to become a carpenter. Another said he wanted to train to be doctor. But sometimes the kids still hanker after the military life they left behind.

"I want to become a warlord," Lassina told IRIN proudly. But then he added: "Well not really. I actually want to become a teacher."