My son went to join the rebels when he was 14 years old. One day he didn’t come home from school. All that night I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking, where is he sleeping? Does he have any food? Was he killed on the road? In the morning I sent my daughter to his friends’ houses and they told her that he’d gone off with one of his friends to join the rebels.

After the Guéréda battle [December 1, 2006] my son came home. He walked into the house, took off his rifle and his cartridge belt, washed his hands and feet and said his prayers. He thought he was a man but he was still a boy. I asked him where he’d been and he looked down and giggled, like he was ashamed. I asked him, “Why did you leave? I never yelled at you. If you needed something I would have given it to you.”  He said he left because his family members were being killed, so he was obliged to become a soldier. I said, “Isn’t that rifle heavy? You can barely lift it.” He said, “It’s not heavy.” I said, “That rifle’s so big it’s going to split your chest.” Since that day he hasn’t been back home. He said I talk too much.
—Aisha, a 38-year-old woman in Guéréda whose 14-year-old son joined the FUC rebels in 2006

When Aisha (not her real name) spoke to Human Rights Watch in March 2007, she might have had reason to believe that her son would soon set aside his rifle and return home. After all, the rebel group her son had joined, the Front Uni pour le Changement(United Front for Change, FUC), had signed a peace treaty with the Chadian government in December. Peace, however, did not bring security, and the December 2006 peace accord actually put pressure on FUC rebels to increase recruitment. In January Aisha sent her 20-year-old son to retrieve his younger brother from the FUC ranks, but he too joined the rebels. Now she fears that she may have lost both of her sons to a conflict so greedy for foot soldiers that boys and even girls have come to be considered soldier material.

The Chadian National Army (Armée Nationale Tchadienne, ANT) is struggling to defeat a Chadian rebel insurgency. In the fall of 2006 both the government and the rebels turned to the recruitment of children as a matter of military survival. Children as young as eight serve as fighters, guards, cooks, and lookouts on the front lines of the conflict.

In some areas of eastern Chad the political dynamics of the Chad conflict intersect with localized inter-ethnic tensions and violence. Children escaping rampant insecurity sometimes fled directly into the ranks of paramilitary groups such as the FUC (FUC forces are concentrated in Dar Tama, a department in northeastern Chad where a climate of generalized insecurity has led to violent attacks against civilians). In December 2006, the Chadian government made peace with the FUC, hitherto one of its most formidable rebel opponents. But by agreeing to contribute many more soldiers to the government army than it had under arms, the FUC was obliged to conduct aggressive manpower drives. Insecurity in Dar Tama continued to drive many children to seek safety in the ranks of the FUC, including schoolchildren. But at the same time, active recruitment on the part of the FUC, including promises of money, pulled children into the group. Human Rights Watch does not have evidence of ongoing recruitment of children on the part of the FUC, but girls and boys continue to serve in the FUC, and some children have fought alongside adult soldiers as combatants.

Since May 2007 both the Chadian government and the FUC have been cooperating with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to identify and demobilize child soldiers in their ranks. While this is to be applauded, questions remain about the extent to which the government’s stated commitment to these efforts is being translated to the field level, and interviews with ANT commanders indicate that Chadian military personnel may attempt to exclude children from the demobilization process. In this light, it is perhaps noteworthy that of the 413 children demobilized from Chadian government military installations since May, all were former FUC fighters. Chad’s Ministry of Defense has promised UNICEF access to Chadian military installations, but UNICEF has only been able to visit a single military base since May. Requests by UNICEF for access to two other sites had not been granted at this writing.

Human Rights Watch believes the demobilization underway cannot be considered comprehensive unless it is consistently applied and enforced throughout the Chadian military apparatus, including in the paramilitary forces that serve as Chadian government proxies, such as village-level self-defense forces and Sudanese rebel groups. Access to all military installations must become a reality, and international child protection officials must be able to make spot inspections on all Chadian military bases and camps, including in frontline areas and among armed groups that are affiliated with the Chadian government, be it formally or informally. Even with rehabilitation and reintegration programs that are specifically tailored to the needs of children, demobilized child soldiers will be at significant risk of re-recruitment as long as the rule of the gun remains unchallenged in eastern Chad.

France has taken the lead on pressuring the government of Chad to demobilize its child soldiers, but other countries with an interest in Chad, particularly those that cooperate militarily with Chad, such as the United States, must make similar efforts to press for the respect of international humanitarian and human rights law in Chad, including the immediate demobilization of child soldiers.

A United Nations protection mission has been proposed by the United Nations Security Council for deployment to eastern Chad, but the proposal has met persistent opposition from Chadian government officials. An international protection mission for civilians in eastern Chad would represent a significant step toward bringing security to violent and volatile areas where children have been recruited into armed groups and where they continue to serve in roles that international law restricts to adults.