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Rebel Training: Introducing Human Rights In War-Torn Central African Republic

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An hour's drive north of Bocaranga in Central African Republic's northwestern highlands, a crudely-fashioned gate marks the border between rebel-held territory and areas controlled by the government. Three young men from the insurgent Peoples' Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD), armed with long knives and handmade rifles, lift the log and we are allowed to continue our journey.

The impoverished villages here, near the borders with Chad and Cameroon, show little sign of economic activity. There is little livestock, fields are overgrown and naked children, some with stomachs distended from malnutrition, play in the dust by the roadside. People have only recently returned to the area following a 2008 peace agreement that ended a civil war which pitted several rebel groups against the government. Sporadic fighting continues, however, and tens of thousands of people remain reluctant to return home.

Members of the insurgent Peoples' Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD), guards a checkpoint leading into rebel-held territory. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.

The midday sun is scorching as we reach the small hamlet of Kosse. The village is one of several where the aid group International Rescue Committee (IRC) has carried out an innovative program to train the country's various armed groups in human rights and international humanitarian law. So far, nearly 4,500 APRD rebels, army officers, community leaders and members of a Central African Economic Community (CEMAC) peacekeeping force have been trained on topics such as the rights of children and the Geneva Convention.

"We try to make the sessions as practical as possible so that the knowledge of human rights isn't just theoretical," explains Clare McRae, who coordinates the training program. "For example, the trainers will go over what procedures to follow at a check point that are respectful of rights. We use games, activities, stories to pass the message through in different ways."

The war, coupled with decades of misrule and lawlessness, has made this one of poorest nations in Africa, with an average life expectancy of just 43 years. Despite an abundance of diamonds and timber, landlocked Central African Republic ranks among the very lowest of the world's countries in the United Nation's annual human development survey. The north of the country, over half its territory, is still in rebel hands. The APRD, the largest rebel group, emerged after contested elections in May 2005 claiming that the government systematically neglected the needs of the north.

In the shade of a clay hut sits Christophe Ndomadji, the local APRD commander. Like most of the fighters here, he's dressed in civilian clothes: jeans, a sleeveless T-shirt and a cap with the emblem of the English football club Chelsea. Two dozen of his men are gathered around. They are all ages, some wearing torn clothing and brandishing crude rifles handmade from scrap metal and wood. The group boasts only one modern weapon -- an AK47 rifle -- the spoils, Ndomadji says, of a clash with government soldiers.

The rebel group has been waging a war against the government armed with crude rifles handmade from scrap metal and wood. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.

The men say that life in the village is bad; that people are often sick and there is very little to eat. If someone falls ill with malaria or another of the diseases common here, the patient needs to be taken to Bocaranga, a two-hour drive south.

"Now we have peace, but things are not better," Ndomadji complains. "If the government doesn't start to help the people of the north, there will be fighting again."

I ask about the human rights training his men received. What did they learn? Will it help to stop atrocities against civilians?

"Our soldiers used to whip people and steal things, but it is better now," Ndomadji claims after a long pause. "Now my men understand that there are laws even during a war. People are returning to their homes and they are moving freely on the roads."

Armand Ngbangombi, an IRC legal trainer, says that the armed groups that underwent training were astonished to first discover that laws governing the conduct of war even exist.

"Most had never heard of the Geneva Convention or any other international laws," he says as our car bumped over potholes brimming with dirty rainwater on the road back to Bocaranga. "And they were particularly surprised to learn that an international court could punish those found guilty of war crimes."

"If the government doesn't start to help the people of the north, there will be fighting again." APRD commander Christophe Ndomadji, flanked by two of his men. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.

One way to ensure that participants take the training seriously is by getting the leadership on board, McRae adds.

"The human rights message comes from the participants' superiors, not just from IRC. It's particularly in the interest of the rebel groups to be recognized as upholding human rights and the rule of law because they seek to be seen a legitimate political group in the eyes of local and international communities."

Although much remains to be done to restore the rule of law and create a lasting peace in this country -- the outcome of presidential elections slated for late 2010 and the ongoing government scheme to disarm and demobilize former rebels will prove critical to any future stability -- McRae says that educating combatants is a start.

"The goal is behavior change, which is a long process. But these are not unwilling students; I've seen the notebooks of participants who have meticulously copied what's written on the blackboard. They want to learn."