In February 2019, the Government of the Central African Republic signed a peace agreement with leaders of 14 armed groups, and began a process of disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and repatriation (DDR) to help 9,000 fighters return to civilian life. But solutions to violence in the Central African Republic won’t come from peace deals alone, they need to be linked to the lived and local experiences of those that fight. What is the reality for young people who leave these armed groups and why do they join them in the first place?
Together with CAR-based civil society organisation Femme Homme Action Plus (FHAP), Conciliation Resources spoke with young men and women who were formally members of armed groups, to understand their experiences of life before, during and after the armed groups, to help inform how best to reintegrating fighters back into their communities.
Fighting for survival and revenge
Speaking to young people associated with armed groups in Paoua, there is a clear disconnect between their personal motivations for joining and the national-level politics and peace processes. Rather than political aspirations, or religious motivation, young people overwhelmingly join armed groups out of a desire for protection or revenge for the killing of family or community members. One young woman told us:
“Some people that I didn’t know came and took my husband and killed him. And I had children and I did not know what to do and by anger, I decided to join the RJ-Belanga group to revenge my husband.”
Those signatories to the peace process may have represented armed groups with political aspirations, but political objectives do not seem to play a significant role in the day-to-day lives of young members of armed groups. To them, these factions have no clear military or political agenda beyond survival. A young man explained:
“We roamed through the villages to eat, we looted people, we forcefully took the men and the women of the villages to take their belongings and food to feed ourselves.”
The disarmament disconnect
This disconnect between the national-level peace process and the realities of conflict at a local level poses a real challenge to disarmament. The national DDR process was developed to tackle formal, large scale and hierarchical armed groups. The reality, however, is that the majority of young people involved with armed groups are not in formal combat roles, nor are they routinely armed with an automatic weapon, meaning that most are not eligible for the demobilisation process and the support that offers. In some cases, young people’s weapons are given to others:
“The boss chased me…He took my weapon to give it to another one, so that that person can do the DDR instead of me.”
The eligibility criteria of the DDR process largely benefit commanders, whilst many young people fall through the cracks. A Community Violence Reduction (CVR) programme has been in place, since 2016 to support those in non-combat roles and not eligible for the national DDR programme. While community members felt that CVR contributed to a reduction in violence, the programme has been limited by its eligibility criteria, scale and geographical coverage and as a result has not succeeded in offering support to the majority of young people we listened to. They overwhelmingly left armed groups unsupported and in serious socio-economic hardship – particularly for former child soldiers and women. This leaves them vulnerable to recruitment by other groups or criminal gangs, and so the cycle continues.
It’s important that the young people who voluntarily leave armed groups receive the support they need to reintegrate back into their communities. Many community members told us of the latent stigma faced by former combatants, and spoke of tensions that could lead to further divisions and violence. One woman said:
“Those who are not part of the armed groups walks with their heads high.”
Many former combatants drew a picture of acute socioeconomic challenges, with the vast majority returning to subsistence agriculture and lacking the resources to support their families. Without socioeconomic support which provides opportunities for young people to earn a living, there is a risk of re-recruitment. But it’s not just former combatants who need this support. They have returned to communities where everyone is facing the same challenges of poverty and opportunity. To avoid generating resentment or incentivising people to join armed groups, economic support must benefit the whole community, not just young people formerly involved with armed groups.
In Pauoa, Conciliation Resources is working with War Child UK and FHAP to help young people, some formerly associated with armed groups, to develop the skills to start their own business or find meaningful employment through professional training, alongside psychosocial support and training in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
Localised interventions like these need to be supported and incorporated into national processes for disarmament and reintegration. We need to connect the dots between national-level processes for peace and the realities faced by young combatants of life before, during and after armed groups. If we want to end violence in CAR for good, then the lived experiences of young people need to be listened to, understood and inform processes of building peace.
More in-depth analysis of the experiences and views of young people returning from armed groups in Paoua can be found in our report “Listening to young people associated with armed groups in northwestern Central African Republic: Voices from Paoua” (July 2020). This report was produced with generous financial support from the UN Secretary General’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) and UK aid from the UK government.