‘If a child can eat when he’s hungry, has access to good education… that’s all a child wants…’

Josué is one of the many young people we encountered in our research project.  He described his early childhood as good and promising, contrary to that of many children in the Central African Republic. His grandfather was a teacher at a good school and he brought Josué with him every morning on his motorcycle. Yet when Josué lost his caretakers to sickness, things went downhill quickly. It did not take long before he joined the Anti-Balaka movement, that aimed at fighting the Seleka forces after they took over Bangui in March 2013. Josué joined the armed Anti-Balaka when he was 14 out of revenge, because he found out that the Seleka forces, in an act of settling an earlier score, killed his former teacher. Josué is now 19 years old and he got out of the armed group with help from MINUSCA, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic. After being demobilised, Josué received a training in tailoring through a Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme. He followed this training together with adult combatants, for although he was only 14 years when joining the movement, he was just turning 18 when he was officially demobilised. Josué is now a skilled tailor, working everyday on his veranda with the sewing machine that he was given when finalizing his training. His story resembles that of many children formerly associated with armed forces or armed groups, in popular language referred to as child soldiers.

Now picture another young person, a young woman from CAR. Marie is 14 years old when, after losing her father, she seeks material support from a young man. It does not take long before she becomes pregnant. Marie’s brothers seriously beat her up after finding out. It seems they abused her not so much for getting pregnant, but because she explained her actions by saying that it was their fault. Her brothers asked her to find a way to provide for her own school fees after their father had died, which is why she turned to the young man in question. Marie survived her brothers’ abuse and is made to stay with the child’s father.  Marie ends up having 3 children with this man. Initially the relationship goes well, but at her third pregnancy he refuses to acknowledge the unborn child and becomes involved with another woman. When her third child is 1,5 years, Marie leaves her partner. She moves in with her mother. When she hears about the Seleka entering Bangui and recruiting people, one day she leaves her children behind, walks to the roadside and joins their forces. Marie sees this as a search for work. Work that may allow her to provide for her children.

What do these young people have in common and what are the differences? To what extent does the persistent crisis that the Central African Republic is experiencing influence their decisions to join groups of armed actors?  How do they end up in opposite camps? Which subsequent losses marked their lives and how do they aspire to better their futures? What is the role of the NGO’s and UNICEF, organizations they have encountered in the process? These are some of the key-questions we try to address in this e-publication by portraying biographical narratives amongst others. We do not suggest that young people are at the core of the outbreak of recurrent violence in CAR. It is well known that ‘big men’, regional mercenaries as well as international actors all have their stakes in the conflict in the CAR (Carayannis & Lombard 2015, McCormick 2015, Utas & Kaihko 2014). At the same time the massive enrolment of children and youth in violence in CAR and its aftermath deserves understanding in order to come to a fuller understanding of one of the ‘social substrate facilitating wartime violence’ (Lombard & Batianga- Kinzi  2014: 53).

Our research team tried to understand the issues young people like Josué and Marie face from an emic point of view. To achieve this we undertook qualitative research. We tried to understand their lived experiences; young people’s short but moving life histories and the meaning they give to their experiences now that they are ‘demobilized’.  Young people are more than just victims in the country’s current conflict, they are also agents that give shape to the present day society and we try to understand them better.

To develop this research-project we chose to work according to a methodology of co-creation. The co-creation in this project can be distinguished on various levels.  The research team’s composition consists of a filmmaker/photographer and academic researchers (anthropologists) from Leiden and Bangui. The young people, formerly engaged with armed groups, that participated in the research, documentary making and conference are however the most important co-creators of our research. It is by sharing their stories, interpreting them for us, connecting us to their family members and surroundings that they conducted this research together with us.  We also collaborated with Max-Landry Kassaï, a Bangui-based writer/ blogger, who will soon publish his first book that elaborates on what it means to grow up in his country. A Central African Republic musician Estasis le Bon (Arnold Ngbagalet) in exile (Kinshasa) contributes to this project, singing about children and youth, the war in his country and about restoring social cohesion and making peace. We also had the unique opportunity to be in frequent interaction with UNICEF (Netherlands and Central African Republic) and their local partner organisations about our findings. All in all this is a unique example of co-creation at different levels leading to various visual products (a documentary, a photo exhibition, photo analysis and video portraits) and texts (a final research report, blogs, a novel and academic publications) and even lyrics and recorded songs. All come together in this e-publication. This co-creation helped us as well as UNICEF to understand what it means to be young in one of the poorest, conflict-ridden countries in the world.