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Thursday 22 December 2005
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AFGHANISTAN: Focus on rehabilitation of child soldiers

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Mohammad Sarwar, a former child soldier from Imam Sahib district, now makes a living keeping livestock and writing letters for illiterate neighbours

KUNDUZ, 27 Jun 2005 (IRIN/PLUSNEWS) - Sitting around a tailor’s table in a tiny shop, Najeebullah and his friends say they are proud to have once been child soldiers because now they are the only literate young people with jobs in Amirbai village, 35 km north of Kunduz, provincial town of the province with the same name in the north of the country. The group has been demobilised as part of a UN-backed programme after several years of life under arms.

The village was on the front line between the Taliban and northern alliance forces from 1998 to late 2001 when the hardline regime was toppled by US-led Coalition forces.

Many children like Najeebullah were forced to join armed factions when their communities became battlegrounds. Some had to take up arms to earn food or to protect their families. Others like Najeebullah, had to bear a weapon as the only male member of the family.


“I had no option but to take a gun when I was twelve because every household had to contribute a man or give the cash equivalent of a fighter’s salary for a year to the local commander,” the 17-year-old recalled.

He’s one of an estimated 8,000 child soldiers identified by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in post-war Afghanistan. Nearly 4,000 of these children have been demobilised and are actively involved in some form of rehabilitation under a UNICEF programme. The programme also addresses the needs of street children who have missed school through poverty or years of displacement.

Najeebullah never went to school but managed to learn how to read and write in less than a year after joining an intensive literacy course which is obligatory for all demobilised child soldiers. He chose tailoring as a skill he wanted to master and now, six months later, he earns his living making clothes. He feels he has a future for the first time in his life.

“I will soon join school as I can read and write now and will also open my own tailoring shop now that I have acquired a profession,” he beamed while putting the finishing stitches in a pair of trousers he had made for a young relative.


According to UNICEF, up to 4,000 boys, the majority between 14 and 17 years old, have been demobilised and reintegrated in north, northeast, east and central Afghanistan since the programme was launched in February 2004.

UNICEF, for the purposes of the rehabilitation programme, define a child soldier as a young person under 17 who has been, or still is, active in a military unit with a formal command structure. Each of the demobilised children then receives a package of support. This starts with registration in the programme’s database, the issuing of a photo identity card, medical and psychosocial assessments and briefing sessions on mine risk and reintegration options.

UNICEF said all demobilised children are also offered voluntary testing for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Each demobilised child has the opportunity to participate in a number of reintegration options, including returning to education or enrolling in vocational training programmes to learn a practical skill. Some opt for income generation schemes like farming sheep or poultry.


Mohammad Sarwar, a former child soldier from Imam Sahib district, a border town 60 km south of Kunduz, said the reintegration experience had changed his life and enhanced his status in the community. The 18-year-old is the only breadwinner in his six-member family and lost his father in a land mine explosion next to their home.

After his father died he had to serve in a military unit, this included everything from combat to entertaining militia forces in front positions.

“I had to dance for them to keep morale high – even when bullets and rockets were whistling past me.” In 1999 Sarwar lost his right hand in a rocket explosion when he was involved in fierce fighting around Kunduz.

“In the past people hated me and I hated my life. It was not the war which was terrifying but the inhumane behaviour of commanders with child soldiers like me,” Sarwar added. The programme has made him literate and he makes a living writing and reading letters and invitation cards when there is a wedding party or mourning ceremony.

Sarwar attended a literacy course run by the Child Fund for Afghanistan (CFA) - an implementing partner used by UNICEF in the northeast of the country. The disabled former soldier has also been given three sheep and some seeds to begin farming. With these he earns his living and supplements it by selling tomatoes grown on a tiny plot of land behind his house.

According to CFA social workers, some of the young former soldiers continue to suffer abuse.

“In some villages there are still children who are misused by commanders. Often they are forced to dance, which is a tradition among warlords in most parts of the country. Often they re sexually abused,” Hamiddullah, one CFA social worker said.


With the expansion of the UN-backed demobilisation campaign, he said the risk of exploitation was lessening.

“People are very happy and they support the programme, they even contribute by making their homes available for literacy and other training,” the social worker said.

“The problem is the existing commanders who are still powerful in the region, even though they have been decommissioned by DDR,” he noted.

According to UNICEF, of the 40,000 demobilised child soldiers 1,500 children completed the course and 1,100 have already found employment. More than 1,000 also received competency certificates in literacy.

“The main challenges have been finding reintegration programmes to match the needs of the young people,” Edward Carwardine a UNICEF spokesman said.

Currently the programme is operating in 17 provinces, but is set to expand.

“The next phase, due to start in the summer, will focus on the south and western regions,” Carwardine added.


 Theme(s) Children
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