Central African Republic’s lost children

Hundreds of children are traumatised after being separated from their parents during the country’s heavy fighting.

We are driving from Bangui to Boda. It’s our first time out of the capital. The first time we were advised by various embassy officials, aid agencies and local government officials that the road is relatively safe.

“You don’t really need to move in a convoy. It’s not too bad. It should take you about four hours and the road is mostly good, except for the last hour or so,” I remember someone telling us.

So we left. Not sure what kind of story we would find in that part of the Central African Republic.

Four hours became more like seven. The road was mostly terrible. The parts that were tarred had so many potholes and the dirt road was a bumpy nightmare from hell.

By the time we arrived in Boda it felt like our insides had been redistributed to parts of our bodies they have no business being in.

Adding to the discomfort, the numerous checkpoints along the away. We were stopped, asked what our mission was, asked for our press accreditation then told to pass.

Sounds simple enough until we came across a checkpoint manned by boys who looked no older than 15.

One had a badge, an actual badge you pin to your shirt that said “Anti-Balaka”. He walked up to my side of the car and I rolled down the window.

He asked me if I have coffee to with him. I looked at the AK-47 he was pointing at me and said “no” very politely.

He stared at me in what felt like a very awkward silence. Then he asked how old I am.

I told him I am old enough to be his mother. This clearly wasn’t the case but I hoped as a fellow African, it would make him give me some kind of respect, in case he had other things on his mind.

He looked at my colleagues in the car, all very big scary-looking guys, smiled and let us pass.

‎He was a child manning a checkpoint, holding a gun and his breath smelled of alcohol, a dangerous combination.

It got me thinking. What happened to kids whose parents got killed during the months of religious violence? Surely they don’t all join armed groups?

The International Committee of the Red Cross is trying to reunite children with their families but it’s not easy. Some parents have left the country and some parts of CAR are too dangerous to visit.

When we got to Boda ‎we were taken to see children separated from their parents. But nothing is ever simple in CAR and there is always a certain amount of danger involved.

The town is divided along religious lines. Christians live on one side, Muslims on the other.

So which side you go to see first, how much time you spent there, could be misinterpreted as taking sides.

So we timed each “visit” just in case someone got the wrong idea.

‎In the Muslim neighbourhood Aluma Moussa has taken in dozens of children separated from their families. Some are babies and some are in their early teens. Most are playing games outside as if everything is normal.

‎Until I speak to 15-year-old Aisha Garba. Her eyes seem cold, distant and detached.

“‎Men carrying machetes, arrived and took my father to the forest. They killed him,” she tells me. “They cut up my mother in front of me and killed her too. I escaped.”

‎We go to the Christian side of town. Inside the church compound thousands of Christians displaced by the violence have put up makeshift homes. We hear similar stories. But a 12-year-old has hope his family is alive. Somewhere.

‎”My older brother and I ran away when the fighting started,” he says, “We came here to sleep in the church with other Christians. I want to find my mother. I don’t know if she is dead or alive. She could be looking for me.”

‎It’s getting dark and we need to find a place to sleep. We eventually find a place in the garden of an aid agency.

It’s not comfortable but we have a toilet, bottles of water, torches and canned food to get us through the evening.

As we fall asleep one by one we hear gun fire in the distance.

The security advisers say, “don’t worry. It’s normal. Whatever is happening is far away. Get some sleep.”

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