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On Darfur's Borders, Children to Lay Down Guns

Jeffrey Allen

DENVER, Colo. - Thousands of children in the African nations of Chad and the Central African Republic could be turning from the battlefield to the blackboard as a result of international negotiations over the past two weeks.

The international children's rights group UNICEF announced Thursday that negotiations had started to reintegrate hundreds of children into civilian life in the northeastern region of the Central African Republic. According to a UN report, the first batch of children is expected to be sent home on June 1, and that could pave the way for the release of children in the northwestern part of the country as well.

0522 06 1About 1,000 children are believed to be serving in various armed groups in the Central African Republic, a UNICEF representative told the UN's IRIN news service.

"The liberation of these child soldiers will be a good thing for the rebellion because we want all of them to go back to school or learn a job," General Damane Zakaria, a rebel leader in the northeastern part of the country, told IRIN.

The UNICEF program is expected to extend the benefits of improved health care, schooling, recreation activities, and protection to all children in the northeast of the country.

That news comes on the heels of a similar agreement signed by UNICEF and the government of Chad on May 9. In that country, UNICEF says it will help the government prevent the future recruitment of children into armed forces and ensure that those already fighting will be liberated and reintegrated into everyday life.

One rebel group in Chad is also believed to have over 1,000 child soldiers among its ranks. Negotiations are underway to secure their return home as well.

In Chad, many of the freed children will head to transition centers where they can receive initial medical treatment and psychological and social support and begin to participate in schooling.

"Traditionally, one would want to see these children [immediately] reintegrated with their families, but the children in Chad come from areas that are still not secure," said UNICEF representative Stephen Adkisson, explaining the need for the transition centers.

The reintegration program in Chad is expected to benefit Sudanese children as well who will be returned to their country of origin.

Chad and the Central African Republic border the embattled region of Darfur in western Sudan, and have seen pockets of fighting erupt in recent months, both due to political instability at home and spill-over effects from the fighting in Darfur.

According to the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit group that works with freed child soldiers, some 300,000 young people worldwide -- both boys and girls -- are currently trained for combat or being used by armed groups as porters, spies, or sex slaves.

The group says that for former child soldiers to recover, communities must "fully accept the child back, and help him or her assume a positive role and identity." It promotes schooling, vocational training, and community child-protection committees to provide support systems for vulnerable children.

In February, 58 countries agreed to the so-called "Paris Principles" to protect children from military recruitment and assist those already involved with armed groups.

The government of Chad was among those who joined the agreement. The Central African Republic was not.

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