Half of Afghan kid troops demobilized

Kabul, December 16, 2004 - Nearly half of Afghanistan's estimated 8,000 child soldiers have been demobilized and are going through educational programs and vocational training aimed at preparing them to rejoin society, the U.N. Children's Fund said Thursday.

The year-old program has targeted 15 northern, northeastern and central provinces. UNICEF said it now hopes to expand into the south, southwest and southeast - the most dangerous parts of a country that is still fighting Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents three years after the collapse of the Taliban's hardline regime.

"These young people - despite being denied the chances that most children have in their formative years - have demonstrated that they want to make a positive contribution to the development of their communities," said Ibrahim Sesay, the UNICEF project officer responsible for the program.

So far, 3,998 boys, mostly ages 14-17, have been demobilized. UNICEF said it tried to identify eligible girls but found that they appear not to have been attached to fighting forces.

One of H.E. President Hamid Karzai's top tasks is to convert gunmen into productive citizens, particularly youths who were drafted into militias or other armed groups and have missed out on years of education.

The UNICEF rehabilitation effort runs in parallel to one designed for adult militia fighters. That program began last year.

The former child soldiers are given a choice between returning to education - 87 percent have received no formal schooling - and vocational training to learn skills like agricultural and animal husbandry, tailoring, carpentry, electronics and masonry.

The first children to be enrolled in the program in February are nearing the end of their training, with more than 1,000 to receive special startup kits soon so they can continue in their new trades, with employment placements already set up.

The program, which has cost $5.3 million so far, is jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, Swedish development agency SIDA, Germany, Japan's Ogata Initiative and other agencies.