BÉOUÉ VILLAGE, Côte d'Ivoire, 15 May 2007 - Béoué, 18, is slender and looks rather small for his age. When is he carrying the mud for the chicken coop that he and his friends are building, it becomes clear how muscular he actually is. He is obviously used to organizing activities and delegating responsibility, so the coop is built quickly.
This is his second chicken coop, Béoué explains proudly. He is happy to learn skills such as construction and chicken breeding. It helps him to forget the past, he says.
In 2002, Béoué's life changed drastically when war broke out in Côte d'Ivoire and an armed rebellion split the nation in two, drawing in warlords and fighters from neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone. Béoué's village was attacked and burned.
Those who were fit enough managed to escape and hid in the bush. Béoué, who was 13 at the time, decided he wanted to join the fighting forces. He felt he had nothing to lose, since most of his relatives had been killed in the attack.
Thousands of children recruited
"Within two weeks, the Liberians had trained me," Béoué recalls. "Although I am not a soldier, I know everything soldiers know about weapons. I know how to cock and load, and how to shoot with a Kalashnikov."
Not long after he had been trained, Béoué had already killed a mercenary from Sierra Leone. "Life was hard," he says. "I used to drink alcohol and smoke drugs mixed with gunpowder to give me strength. Sometimes we had no water to drink; I had to wet my lips with my own urine as not to dehydrate".
Since 2002, thousands of children have been recruited by government forces, militias and armed groups led by Liberian warlords. Especially in the west, where Béoué lives, violent clashes over an extended period have led to displacement, destruction, looting and violence. These crimes were committed against the civil population, with children as witnesses and sometimes even as actors.
'Terrible things happen on this earth'
After having spent time with the Liberian warlords, Béoué decided that it was time for him to go home. Although he was afraid, he felt his village needed him.
"In April 2004, I decided to return home and brought with me two Kalashnikovs, ammunition, boots and uniform to defend my village," says Béoué. "If I had to die, I'd rather have died in my own village. I have seen and done many bad things. Terrible things happen on this earth."
In his village, ASA, a local non-governmental organization, had set up a programme to demobilize and disarm former child soldiers - and to prevent them from being recruited back into conflict. Social workers from ASA approached Béoué to ask whether he wanted to learn a skill or go back to school."
"At first I was not interested at all," he recounts. "I was still under the influence drugs."
Support for demobilization
After a year, however, Béoué agreed to join the programme. He felt that he was too old to return to school, so he opted to learn a skill - chicken breeding - and was grateful for that.
Béoué is now learning how to run a chicken business, including breeding, coop construction and basic literacy and numeracy skills. In addition, he receives psycho-social support and health care.
UNICEF and implementing partners such as ASA have set up a Prevention, Demobilization and Reintegration Programme for young people like Béoué in Côte d'Ivoire. The main goal is to reintegrate children like Béoué into their families and communities, and to offer them a second chance in life.
Through this intervention programme, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) has supported over 4,000 children associated with armed groups and thousands more who are at risk of recruitment.
Looking to the future
"I do not actually want to stay in the village," explains Béoué. "There are too many bad memories here. At night I prefer to be with my chickens. Their chitter-chatter gives me a feeling of comfort".
Béoué's dream is to earn enough money to move to a bigger town and set up a small business there.
"Besides having shop, I still would like to continue with chicken breeding", he says with a confident smile. "I really like my chickens. I see them as my family - they are the only family I have left".