BANGUI, Central African Republic—Fifteen teenagers ran after a balloon in the courtyard. Eight girls jumped rope with a white plastic cord. Other young people were running to and fro.
The youths were playing on a free day at a training center of the Union of Technicians for Unemployed Young People (Union des Techniciens en Faveur des Jeunes Désoeuvrés), a nongovernmental organization that is trying to help reintegrate former child soldiers into society.
Hergi Wilikon shouted with joy as he played, a reversal from his recent past. Dressed in gray shorts and a red and yellow tunic, this innocent-looking 16-year-old was, like all the other residents of the youth center, a former militant who had committed horrific acts of violence.
“I killed five Muslims—an elderly woman, three teenagers and a 4-year-old girl—at the checkpoint with my machete,” he said, adding that he was drugged before the massacre. “Each time, the chief congratulated me for my courage.”
Wilikon belonged to the Anti-Balaka, a Christian militia that has been fighting a Muslim group called the Seleka and its successor, the Ex-Seleka, for the past four years of the Central African Republic’s long civil war. Anti-Balaka is a term from street language that designates a group that is fighting against gun-toting rivals.
One day in 2014, Wilikon went to a shop in his neighborhood in Bangui to buy bread. On his return, he saw thick black smoke rising above his family home. People in tears were running in all directions. Gunshots sounded. Panic-stricken, Wilikon ran away.
When he returned, his home had been burned to the ground. His parents and 5-year-old brother were dead in the ashes. Seleka men had burned his family’s home and three other houses in the neighborhood that evening. Fearing the Muslim militia, Wilikon ran to the nearest anti-Balaka camp, determined to seek vengeance.
After a few months, representatives of Plan International, a British group that advocates for children’s rights, persuaded anti-Balaka leaders to release the adolescent.
“We meet with the armed groups to ask them to release the children so that they can be taken care of,” said Fréderic Beda, communication officer of Plan International in the Central African Republic. “Every child says what occupation he would like to learn after leaving the armed group or if he wants to go back to school. We also provide psychological support and follow-up for the people we help.”
Wilikon was then entrusted to UNICEF and the Union of Technicians for Unemployed Young People. Around 100 youths and former soldiers live and take classes at the union’s facility in the capital.
For the past three years, Wilikon has been making tunics at the youth center and selling them at a market in Bangui.
His small business is helping to keep him from being dragged back into violence, like hundreds of thousands of other children who are displaced or orphaned in the country after years of civil war. Around 94,000 primary schoolchildren could not take their final exams because of school closures due to insecurity, according to UNICEF.
In addition to providing room and board, the union offers the young people courses in sewing, hairdressing, leather goods, carpentry and soap making. They can also improve their literacy and learn cooking and entrepreneurship skills.
Kandjili Max Alexis, a carpenter in the union, explained how he and other technicians teach their trades. “First we help the children learn the name and role of each tool,” he said. Then they are taught skills like tracing joints with a pencil and carpenter’s square.
“At the stage of sawing or notching,” Alexis said, “I begin by showing the position to adopt, because if you are badly positioned, the line will not be straight. I am surprised that these children assimilate quickly.”
Created in 2000, the union has trained around 550 children from armed groups. Around 6,000 children were fighting in the Central African Republic at the height of the violence in 2014, according to the United Nations. Around 300,000 child soldiers are active throughout the world, including in Afghanistan, South Sudan and other conflict zones, U.N. officials believe.
The union will give Deborah Benzi, 16, a sewing machine, scissors, fabrics and threads in a few weeks when she graduates from the center’s mixed-sewing course.
“I made four outfits that I sold,” said Benzi. She used the money to buy materials she could use for making other outfits.
“I would like to practice what I learned at the center to earn my living,” said Benzi, who joined an anti-Balaka camp as a cooker and cleaner after Seleka fighters killed her mother. “I intend to have a husband and children.”
But the youth center is not necessarily challenging some of the beliefs that helped stoke the violence in the Central African Republic.
At the core of Anti-Balaka membership is the gris-gris, a charm that typically contains a piece of paper with a passage from the Bible. Many children at the center still cherish the gris-gris they received while child soldiers. Many had them surgically implanted under their skin.
“When some children were in Anti-Balaka camps, gris-gris were implanted in their bodies to protect them from bullets or to neutralize the enemy,” said Philippe Bida-Gredibert, a member of the union’s steering committee who believes the amulets are a negative influence at the youth center. “Only a few have agreed to extract those gris-gris in hospitals. Many children at the center still refuse to extract their fetishes.”
Chancella Gonekar, a 16-year-old hairdressing student, said she wanted to keep her gris-gris. “We cannot remove them because we do not know when the enemy will attack,” she said.
Revealing the depth of the superstition attached to these amulets, Gonekar admitted that okra somehow weakened the charm. “The anti-Balaka do not eat okra,” she said. “It’s our secret.”
Many of the young people in the center hold beliefs that are potentially more dangerous.
Even though Wilikon swore he had put soldiering behind him, he still expects more violence in his future and bears animosity toward his former enemies. “If now I am told that the Seleka are killing my relatives,” he said, “I will attack them.”