Yediot Aharonot, 5 June 2015
How do you treat a 12-year-old who was enlisted in the army and stabbed people to death? How can you rehabilitate a child whose kidnappers from a militia turned him into a cocaine addict so he could kill people? And how do you bring a seven-year-old who is seeking revenge back into his family’s arms? • Agnes Coutou, who was responsible for rescue and rehabilitation of child-soldiers in Africa and is now coordinator of protection operations of the Red Cross in Israel, doesn’t give up on any child: “The small moments in which I see I made a different, even for a single person, keep me going”
Gabi Bar Haim •
Agnes Coutou doesn’t really remember what she thought when a gun was held to her head. “It’s not that your whole life passes before your eyes, like they say,” she explains. “What I remember clearly is the total concentration of the body and soul – you switch into survival mode and somehow you do the right thing.”
That’s what happened to her four years ago, when she was part of a Red Cross delegation to Congo. She arrived with a team at an isolated village to negotiate with the commander of an armed guerilla group. “The meeting when well, but in the evening some of his soldiers got totally drunk and began going wild with the guns. You don’t understand the language, but you feel the aggressiveness. When someone who’s drunk and armed yells and tries to get near to you forcibly – that’s frightening. Anything can happen. He’s an armed person who can do what he wants to you and you have no one to turn to. You’re in the middle of a forest, so you have no choice but to try and talk. My luck was that I was with colleagues who were trained for such situations. Nobody panicked. You have to be very cool-headed is such situations, which happen often.”
Where do you start?
“You try to estimate the level of the threat. We understood that it all came down to our approach. We reminded those who were drunk that they had a boss – that’s something we learned in the course of our work. Because these personalities are unpredictable and these situations are very frequent in this kind of work. Another thing is not to add to the panic: there’s a person with a weapon aimed at you and threatening you, but it’s not necessarily a comfortable moment for him, either. When you’re drunk, you don’t know right from wrong, and the most important thing is to remain calm. They could shoot me in the head, but at the same time you feel you’re in a moment outside of time, where the brain and all your resources are concentrating on how to get out of the situation alive. I think this comes from a really primeval part of our brain. And the fact is, I survived. But I was very lucky.”
Luck is definitely a key element in the tales of Coutou, 38, a woman who’s racked up mileage in some of the most dangerous places in the world and has stayed alive among thieves, drunken soldiers and murderous guerilla groups.
As someone who has worked in the Red Cross for six years already, she got her basic training working the width and the length of Africa, charged with handling prisoners and finding missing persons, as well as protecting the civilians in areas of fighting in Congo, Sudan and Liberia. Before that, she was involved in humanitarian activities for the UN and Physicians without Borders. Over the years, one of her main goals has been the rescue, rehabilitation and unification of child-soldiers in Africa with their families. Just this month, for example, 20 child-soldiers were rescued from the battlefield in Congo and transferred to rehabilitation facilities in the country.
Coutou herself prefers not to use the term child-soldiers. “We don’t call them child-soldiers but children connected to armed forces and military groups,” she explains. “Why? Because ‘child-soldiers’ immediately evokes images of a child holding a loaded Kalashnikov and firing on people. And although this may be true sometimes, beyond that there’s a wide variety of children who are in positions of supporting combat: they carry ammunition, prepare food, and are no less exposed to danger. And what all the children in these positions share is that they are usually the first victims.”
Recently the term also became relevant here, when organizations such as IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and Boko Haram recruited children to their ranks. The most consistent and well organized is IS, which established training camps in Syria that house young volunteers, as well as children who are snatched from their homes. Two months ago, for example, IS fighters kidnapped 120 children from a school in the city of Mosul, Iraq. A video posted on the internet in January showed the outcome of the IS basic training: a fighter of about 10 years old executing two people claimed to be Russian spies. And only last week, the prime minister of Australia announced that children who commit atrocities as soldiers will be tried as adults, after a seven-year-old Australian boy had his picture taken last year with the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier. Against this background, it seems that Coutou’s efforts in the complex task of dealing with children who participated in combat in Africa will become critical in the Middle East, as well.
Half a year ago she took her new position as coordinator of protection activities of the Red Cross in Israel. A meeting with her on a dusty Tel-Aviv afternoon reveals an elegant, well spoken, and especially, very committed woman. And the surprise: she’s very happy with her new appointment, and recently she even became addicted to shakshuka [a Middle Eastern egg dish]. “It’s an amazing thing,” she marvels. As the daughter of French winemakers, she is also happy to chat about the local wines, but this easygoing approach disappears the moment she begins to talk about her work.
What does the title “coordinator of protection activities” mean?
Our work revolves around protecting individual rights. These may be based on the international human rights law or other standards. For example, a great deal of the work involves visits to prisons, detention facilities and any other place where there are people whose freedom has been taken from them. This includes all the relevant places in Israel and the Occupied Territories, Israeli and Palestinian prisons, alike. It also includes detention facilities in the Negev for foreign workers, such as Holot.
“Another aspect is protection of the civilian population, mainly regarding hostile actions during the occupation. We document violations of the law and then create a dialogue about them with the authorities and the representatives of the army that operates in our location. It’s important to stress that we don’t publish our reports and conclusions.”
Why? We would like to know what you think about the situation in Gaza, for instance.
It’s a secret dialogue whose importance lies not in the secrecy itself, but in the establishment of relationships of trust when dealing with humanitarian issues. If we publicize our conclusions, they won’t trust us. We are not judges or attorneys; we don’t come with the aim of saying who is wrong or who is guilty for the situation in Gaza. Our role is to say that there’s a big problem here.”
According to Red Cross policy, Coutou insists on keeping the conclusions about the Israeli treatment of the Palestinian population, and towards those seeking asylum from Africa, to herself. Any question about Israeli statements such as those of Eli Yishai during his term as interior minister or Miri Regev (“the Sudanese are a cancer in our body”), popular protests against the refugees, such as that in the Tikvah neighborhood, or the controversial activity of the Oz Unit, is met by a wall of European courtesy. And nevertheless, it’s easy to gather from what she says that she’s not really pleased about the current situation.
When you hear stories from the Holot facility, and in light of your first-hand knowledge of the area the refugees come from, what do you think about how the Israelis treat them?
“I’m prohibited from sharing our conclusions, but from our perspective, migration is a positive, high-priority phenomenon. Our constant message on this is that detainment of migrants should be the last – not the first – resort. It’s true that they enter the country illegally, but the first thing a country should do for them is not to arrest them but to listen to their stories and enable them to seek asylum. In the case of vulnerable groups, such as children or people who suffered torture, they should not be arrested. Now these refugees are in a detainment facility that’s semi-open or semi-closed, depending on who you ask (she laughs), so our job is to visit and monitor the conditions in which they are held and develop recommendations on this basis. In the meantime, the recommendation is that such detainment is the least successful option.”
Decapitating Your Father
Coutou was born in a small village near the city of Bordeaux, France. As a child she was already an enthusiastic environmental activist. “I fought for the rain forests, the elephants and the lions. As a teenager, I was evidently more interested in them than in people,” she jokes. She graduated from the University of Bordeaux with a degree in political science and human rights law. When a colleague joined the Red Cross, Coutou got excited. “I heard a lecture she gave and I said, ‘that’s what I want to do.’”
She began her humanitarian career in 2000, in Kosovo. “I only remember that it was terribly cold. There was no electricity. No heat. There were no doors on the houses because everything had been destroyed. That was also the first time I was exposed to destruction of life, to people who had lost everything. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt this where I should be. It was a feeling that I continued during my work in Africa, as well.”
How did the people in Africa react to the fact that you are a woman and what’s more, one with demands?
“Over half of my counterparts on the ground are women. It’s widely accepted. I think the primary advantage for me was the respect they have for foreigners who come to help, as well as the curiosity, and interest in my ability to help. In every country I worked in I always felt respect and interaction. I was never sexually harassed, I felt secure even when I worked in regions in which there had been many cases of rape.”
It was only upon coming to the Red Cross that she was exposed to the really difficult material. In one of the testimonies that the organization collected, Emanuel, now 13 years old, spoke about how he became a fighter in a Congolese guerilla organization. “One day I was on my way home from school and a few armed men grabbed me,” he said. “They took me to the forest, where they taught me to shoot, to kill and to rape women. They had a lot of marijuana and alcohol and they offered it to the children, I was the only one who refused and they didn’t force me.”
“Many children are sent to spy over enemy lines,” Coutou says. “They are enlisted by force or of their own will, because it’s the only way to get food. Sometimes their aim is also revenge. I remember a seven-year-old boy in Congo who told me how a group of armed men totally destroyed his village and that he was so angry he wanted to get back at them. The group that he tried to join didn’t want him and he insisted.”
Another testimony was that of Frank, who became an active participant in the killing in Congo when he was 12 years old. When he was released from the militia in which he was active, he was addicted to drugs, not a rare thing among child-soldiers. In Africa it’s widely accepted to drug children before battle, either with alcohol or with amphetamines and cocaine. The testimony of a child recorded by Amnesty International revealed that his captors made cuts in his legs and smeared cocaine on them. “After that, I felt like a big man,” he said. “Other people looked like little rats to me. I wanted to kill them.”
How do you begin rehabilitating such a child?
“I have to admit that we don’t deal with drug addiction. I know it exists and it’s problematic, but it’s not our mandate. One of the first things we do is identify them. We hear from families about cases and try to find the children. In the next stage, we find out whether the children want to reunite with their families.
“Sometimes the families don’t want the children any more; in other cases the psychological trauma the children experienced renders them incapable of returning to the family unit. In Congo we set up a transit camp, where children come to recover, take lessons and get psychological first aid. In the meantime we locate the family and when both sides are psychologically ready, we unite them.”
Life and Death in a Single Moment
Norman was 12 years old when he was enlisted in the infamous Liberian army, one of the Coutou’s most difficult places of work. In his testimony he talked about the mentoring he underwent, which included total loss of humanity. “They starved me for days, and when they asked if I was hungry it was forbidden to say yes – because then they would immediately shoot me. I got used to not asking anything.” After two months he committed his first murder. “I pushed a knife into his chest. Once as you kill the first time, you change. Automatically you become guilty, but you also become someone who belongs.”
The climax of this belonging was a special ceremony, in which the children were given new rifles that were dipped in “holy water” and covered with a mixture of oil and egg. This feeling of belonging is what enabled them to participate in atrocities such as throwing infants from buildings, beheading mothers who refused to eat their children and other unimaginable acts. When he reached the village of his birth, even his mother didn’t recognize him. “I was very aggressive to my parents,” he testified. “I thought more than once about how to murder them.” Another boy said in his testimony that he had beheaded his father after the latter asked him how he felt when he killed someone.
Can these children return to normative life?
“We can’t underestimate the psychological damage; these children have seen and done things that changed them forever. But I have also seen quite a few stories that ended well, because what we mustn’t forget is that they are still children who are growing and developing, for better and for worse. You are amazed by the resilience and strength they have, by their ability to adapt to the situation. They have a flexibility you don’t see in adults. Even children I met who had gone through the very worst always had hope.”
So how do you bring a child like that back to society?
“We work with a local team that understands the local culture and language and we train them in the various therapeutic methods, which are very different from the Western world. This can be through religion or through dance. They have their ways. Children are spontaneous and honest, so it’s possible to get a pretty reliable idea about their through their drawings. In general, any type of play and learning is wonderful. If there’s something that amazed me it’s the connection these children and their families have to schools, even if there is a war waging around them. Because it’s the symbol of normality. It is perceived as a protected space.”
A ten-year-old boy who fought in the ranks of IS was killed in Syria. Boko Haram operated a ten-year-old girl as a suicide bomber. Is there any dialogue with these terrorist organizations?
“We try to reach them through community and religious leaders. They don’t want to open a dialogue with us because we represent the West and because we have a cross, but nevertheless we look for a common denominator with them. To tell the truth, we still haven’t found it. Sometimes things take time and sometimes we fail. If people don’t want to talk to us, there’s not much we can do. There are many discussions in our Geneva headquarters on how to bring them to the table, but evidently we need to understand that there are people with whom communication is a mission impossible.”
Have you had a moment of total pessimism?
“A year ago, when I visited villages in southern Sudan that had been burned to ashes. You enter a village immediately after a massacre and see bodies of children and women on the way. Defaced bodies and bodies of women who were raped. Of course it affects you. There were times we reached places where there had been executions of a group of fighters who were prisoners, which is illegal. These are not things that arouse hope. And you know that they will recur and that you can’t prevent it.”
What does this do psychologically? A person can go crazy.
“After such sights in Sudan you’re stunned. And even after so many years you’re still in shock. And I think it’s important, because if you’re not in shock and you begin to accept these things as natural, you’re in trouble. I try to constantly check whether I’m in trouble. I’ve seen colleagues who became dulled to atrocities. Therefore we have the option of stopping a task and getting psychological help.״
Is that common?
“I don’t know how many people do it. In my case, even the most difficult sights didn’t impair my ability to function. I remember that I took care of women and children who had been raped. I was sad; I was shocked, helpless. I knew it would happen again and I was angry. I doubted my role. But then you speak with people who work with you and you say, okay, I’m not a politician. I’m a humanitarian activist. There’s a limit to what I can do. I’m not Superman and I can’t beat up the bad people. That’s frustrating, but our work is done by means of talking and persuasion.
“What makes me go on are the small moments when I understand that I made a difference, even if it’s only for one person. Because who else who will roam these areas of Africa with a backpack in order to take a child back to his village in a region that’s impossible to reach during wartime? Because if I don’t do anything, even that won’t happen.”
It sounds like work with a lot of sacrifice.
“Not really. I don’t have children because of personal choice. I’ve been in relationship for 16 years and I met my husband while I was studying. He has a similar job to mine in a different organization, and most of the time we’re on assignments in neighboring regions. We manage to see each other quite a bit, but it’s not a question because from my point of view, I am living the only life I can. Perhaps at some stage I’ll decide to return to the village where I was born and make wine. But I don’t have that urge at the present time.”
And in all this there are also moments of great loneliness.
“I remember one moment of loneliness in Darfur, when an attempt was made to kidnap us. It was before I worked for the Red Cross. There was a barrier on the road and the people there, who weren’t fighters but thieves, realized that they could use us to make money. They moved us off the road and it’s not clear how, but we persuaded them to leave us alone. I felt alone because I faced my fate. There might be other people with you, but when you face the possibility of death and its absurdity – you’re totally alone. But that’s life; you can die for nothing.”