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Chad/Sudan: a former child soldier remembers

14-01-2011 Feature

Mohammed went off to fight in Darfur at the age of 13. Luckily for him, he was captured by the other side. "Luckily," because while he was in jail the young man from Sudan was visited by ICRC delegates. Thanks to them, he was able to rejoin his family, now living in Chad. He talked to us about despair, the joy of seeing your family again and the ICRC delegate who spoke such fluent Arabic.

This is the second visit that Mohammed has received from ICRC delegates since he arrived in Abéché, the main town in eastern Chad. Mohammed is a former child soldier from Sudan. After spending years in an armed group in Darfur, he was able to rejoin his family thanks to the ICRC.

He greets the ICRC team in front of his parent’s small house, impatient to start answering their questions. The ICRC wants to be sure that Mohammed is doing well and integrating successfully into his family and community. It is not uncommon to see former child soldiers project an image of violence and fear, making it difficult for them to find acceptance in the community. But Mohammed seems to have integrated well, and to have adapted to his surroundings.

“I was turned down for several jobs, but now I’m working as a driver’s assistant,” he tells us. “This job means I can look after myself and support all 10 members of my family.”

Being able to spend time with his family is a luxury for Mohammed, who gets quite emotional as he remembers how things were.

Mohammed and his family are victims of the violence in Darfur. When the situation there deteriorated, he was 12 years old. He and his family had to flee their village and take refuge in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, and then in Am Nabak, a refugee camp in eastern Chad.

A year later, Mohammed decided to go back to Sudan and join one of the groups fighting in Darfur. In 2008, he and a number of his comrades fell into enemy hands and were imprisoned.

Just the fact that those delegates were there was important to us.

“It was awful being in prison, only seeing the guards and the fence,” he explains. “I was frustrated and sad, and as time went on I found it more and more difficult to accept my situation.

The hardest thing was losing touch with my family and, to some extent, with my friends and my comrades. My heart and my soul were with my family. Not a day went by without my wondering when I’d see them again. I was struggling with feelings of despair, and they were getting stronger.

The only thing I wanted was to be able to contact my family. I knew that would make me less uncertain and lonely, and that it would give me strength.

The ICRC visited us regularly. I particularly remember one delegate. He wasn’t an Arab, but he spoke fluent Arabic. It did me a lot of good to be able to talk to him. Sometimes, we had long discussions. He was very respectful.

Just the fact that those delegates were there was important to us. We felt less forgotten, less abandoned.

The ICRC did a lot for us. For instance, the ICRC doctor examined prisoners who were in urgent need of treatment, and told the people who were holding us. That was very important for us.

The ICRC also had a “restoring family links” programme, which made it possible to hear my mother’s voice on the phone after many years of being cut off, and to see her writing on the Red Cross messages we exchanged. But the best news of all was when we heard that the ICRC would be able to help some of us demobilized child soldiers to rejoin our families.

Once they’d got the agreement of my family and gone through a whole load of bureaucracy – which seemed to be taking ages – the ICRC was able to start the reunification process.

Finally, the day of departure arrived. The aircraft landed first at El Geneina in Darfur, where some of the guys met up with their parents. Then we had to wait for six long days before flying on to Abéché in Chad, where my mother was waiting for me impatiently. It was a very moving moment, especially when our eyes met for the first time after so many years. There’s just no way to describe what it felt like to see my mother and my family after all this time as a soldier. I’ll never forget it.”