Violence and displacement in the Central African Republic are leaving lasting emotional and mental scars on thousands of children. Giving them space to feel safe and to express themselves is one way to help them find peace.
BOSSANGOA, Central African Republic, 7 November 2013 – Like most children, 13-year-old Felicia loves to draw. But her drawings are not the usual happy scenes of school and family and friends. In vivid colours, she draws a man lying on the ground dead, houses burned down, and men carrying weapons. For a young girl forced to flee for her life several times in recent months, the memories of violence are still fresh.
“We were inside the house with my parents when they broke in with guns. My heart got warm,” Felicia says. “They dumped the dead bodies in front of our house. There were my neighbours. I knew them. It hurts me. When we ran away in panic, we were separated and my uncle was killed.”
We don’t talk about what happened
For weeks, Felicia and her family hid in the bush along a river, but renewed clashes forced them to flee again in September. Since March 2013, when rebels took the capital, Bangui, some 400,000 people have been uprooted by violence and insecurity.
When the family eventually arrived at a site for displaced people, Felicia’s 2-month-old sister was suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. She died shortly after. Felicia believes that the water they drank in the field made her little sister sick.
“I don’t have nightmares. But when I think about it, I see images and I start crying,” says Felicia, whose clothes are torn and ragged. “When I arrived here, I knew nobody. Then I met educators at the UNICEF tent. Now I consider them as my peers, my friends. I know I can talk to them. I know they listen to me. At home, we don’t talk about what happened.”
The events that Felicia and thousands of children like her have experienced have a lasting and powerful impact. Exposure to extreme violence, displacement, loss of family members and separation from the safety and protection of home – all of these can profoundly affect a child’s emotional well-being and mental development.
Arts and recreational activities such as drawing and sports provide an important outlet for children affected by violence, and can help them express their feelings and cope with the distress they have been through.
Child-friendly spaces for displaced children
Less than two months after the renewed violence, UNICEF teams set up two areas in two displacement sites in Bossangoa where children can play, get involved in recreational activities and get counselling and support in an environment where they can feel safe and protected.
“When the children first come to the UNICEF space, they tend to isolate themselves – some curl up under the mango tree,” says Pelagie, 20, one of eight volunteer educators from NGO Caritas trained by UNICEF. “They look sad and don’t want to interact with other children. Then they start opening up. I play and dance with them. They trust me. I am a child like them – I am also displaced. I have the same stories. We saw the same atrocities.”
Through the UNICEF-supported child-friendly spaces, up to 600 boys and girls who fled their homes in Bossangoa and neighbouring villages are beginning to regain a sense of what it’s like to be a child again. Every child has a right to play and have a childhood free of violence. UNICEF is currently planning to strengthen its interventions by sending more specialists in post-trauma management to affected areas.
“Sadly, children’s drawings suggest they have been deeply affected by the conflict,” says Jean Lokenga, UNICEF’s Chief of Protection in the Central African Republic. “Many displaced children have witnessed violent incidents, and it’s still in their heads. It’s not good to keep these feelings bottled up. If not addressed immediately, the long-term impact of their exposure to traumatic, distressing events can be huge.”
Pelagie, UNICEF-trained educator, adds, “There might be little I can do to bring peace to my country, but there is so much I can do to bring peace in children’s minds.”
Story by Laurent Duvillier