The heavy door to the prison closes behind me and I’m locked in, sitting in a circle with children exchanging greetings. Smiles, fidgeting hands, “How are you? Can you believe this heat?” Always the same smiles — despite the fact they’re locked up. I’m struck by their good nature.
A thousand kilometres from here, in the extreme southeast of Niger bordering Nigeria, a very important dialogue is starting between community leaders from villages who have been abducted by Boko Haram. If the leaders resist the return of these children, they will stay safely at a transit centre. Arrival preparation is essential to avoid stigmatization and rejection, from the community or their own families. It’s one of the most complex steps in the process and can derail the whole reintegration if not done well.
The situation for children suspected of associating with armed forces and groups is an extremely delicate problem in Niger and every country where UNICEF and its partners work in this area. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Paris Principles provide the basis for our intervention and give us a framework with the government of Niger. These documents insist that children must be considered victims of a conflict and they must be protected. It is a great step forward, opening the possibility for tangible future solutions for children in danger.
UNICEF works with local authorities and neighbourhood leaders to discuss the rights of the children, the fact that they are victims and the circumstances that ended with them in armed groups. Family mediations are crucial for the child to return home in the best possible circumstances, knowing that the return can be problematic for some parents. Tracking the psychological impact of post-traumatic stress is also essential, for the victims and for the families, especially if they have lost a loved one.
In two years, more than 100 children who have been associated with Boko Haram have been supported by child protection programmes, offered in partnership with the judicial system, here in Niger. Every story is different, every voice is unique. Some have been captured by security forces and others escaped Boko Haram, which operates in the far-east region of Niger. It’s very rare that children go directly home to their family.
The phone rings. The authorities release several children. Their faces brighten as they are released. It’s essential to help them return to a normal life. The logistics need to be organized quickly: the education supplies, the transport, the welcome at the transit centre in Niamey. With the Ministry for the Protection of Children, UNICEF takes responsibility for them and assures re-entry into their community and family reintegration. It’s a beautiful day for these young people, everyone agrees
They spend two to three months at the transit centre, as a smooth transition is organised. In workshops they learn practical skills that they can use back in their village. During this transition, they are exposed to cultural and educational games, along with psychosocial activities. A multidisciplinary approach provides a holistic response for the child so they can return to their society, to give them confidence and self-esteem, and to help deal with the negative experiences they had in custody. To leave custody and go to the transit centre is a key step in the process of reintegration.
It’s really important to focus on helping these young people develop useful skills to help them earn a living, and at the same time avoid stigmatisation. For example, we try to avoid training sessions with only children who’ve been associated with Boko Haram; we work to bring them into workshops for a broader group. This helps integrate the children into their community without provoking frustration from others who are also suffering daily consequences from the conflict.
It’s a fragile process. Many families anxiously await the return of their children from armed groups. We walk a fine line between acceptance and rejection. The future of these children and their families is in our hands.
The phone rings. A young girl has just been reunited with her family. It occurs to me that UNICEF is helping open doors to the future, literally and figuratively.
I realise how crucial it is for these parents, for these young people who find the courage to carry on despite all they have been through. With the support of the Niger authorities, and a protocol that considers them victims (signed in February 2017, nearly 3 years since the abduction of the Chibok girls), we are able to offer a real alternative for these young people: instead of prison we offer freedom and autonomy. Instead of being locked up, we offer the protection of their rights. Instead of rejection, we offer empathy and support. Our programs need to anticipate the needs of the children, whether boys or girls, suspected associating with Boko Haram, or other insurgent groups.
To help them put words to their suffering, to listen, understand and look towards the future with them, from my point of view, is one of the most important things we can do. We must explain the realities of conflict and the consequences for the most vulnerable if we are to help these families. The reconciliation of parents and children must go through this phase.
I close the door to the prison and emerge into the bright sunlight. I am free and they are not. But their focus on the future carries me and gives me confidence, it encourages me. The road is full of obstacles. But despite it all, these young people believe. If they believe, then I must too.
Hakim Kabour started working for UNICEF in Algeria in 2013. He joined the team in Niger 6 months ago as a consultant working on child protection in emergencies for UNICEF Niger and has been focusing ever since on children associated with armed forces and armed groups.