With tens of thousands of illiterate and unskilled former child soldiers in Afghanistan providing a tempting target for recruitment by one of the war-torn country’s numerous armed groups, United Nations agencies need additional funds to continue training projects to reintegrate them as members of a peaceful society.
Currently, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) finances teaching and training programmes like sewing, weaving or carpentry, and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) supplies a monthly food aid ration, providing crucial nutritional support for the trainees and their families as well as a powerful incentive for them to attend class.
Without additional donations, WFP could well be forced to stop supporting this crucial project in the second half of 2006, leaving the former child soldiers still untrained and illiterate – and with little hope of a better life.
“Instead of self-sufficient tailors and carpenters and mechanics helping to boost the development of their communities and the nation as a whole, there will be thousands of poor, hungry and frustrated former child soldiers with families to feed and no legal means of doing so – the perfect recruiting pool for insurgents and other armed groups,” WFP officer Richard Lee said in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
“As long as there is a steady supply of new young recruits, the… conflict will go on,” he added, noting that unprecedented clashes between insurgents led by the ousted Taliban regime and Government and international troops as well as ambushes and suicide bombings have left hundreds dead in recent weeks.
In one example of the projects now threatened by lack of funding, 35 young men and boys sit in a dusty courtyard, all hunched over old-fashioned, manual sewing machines, carefully putting the finishing touches to flowing shirts.
It may look like a sweatshop but it’s a makeshift training centre in a poor village in the northern province of Sari Pul, where demobilized ex-combatants are being taught that there is a possible – and profitable – future beyond the gun.
“During the Taliban time, I was forced to be a gunman,” says Abdul, one of the trainees. “Then I was demobilized. But I had nothing to do and no way to make any money.” Without any skills, he feared he would return to his violent previous life. But thanks to the joint UN project he and thousands like him have a brighter alternative.
“I am trying hard to learn the skills to be a good tailor because there is only one professional tailor in our village and he gets up to 150 Afghans ($3) per item,” he adds. Abdul lives with the other six members of his family in a nearby house.
“If I make a success of sewing, I will earn a lot of money. Definitely enough to care for my family,” he says.
The training programme also ensures that the ex-combatants, as well as other war-affected boys and girls, attend basic literacy classes, usually for the first time in their lives.
“It was like I was blind before but now I can read and write,” Abdul says. He was never given the chance to go to school during Afghanistan's decades of brutal conflict. “I can also do addition and subtraction. It will help me so much because I will be able to write down what people owe me,” he adds.