Chema Caballero

Right to peace. Children’s rights.
Desarrollo y Educación Solidaria

Graduated in law by the Autonomous University of Madrid and master in human rights and conflict resolution by the Long Island University of New York, his professional career is marked by the nearly two decades of work in Sierra Leona as a Xaverian missionary.

He arrived in the African country after the end of the war to participate in a human rights educational programme addressed mainly to young people and women. He soon realized that his American English was not very helpful in order to communicate with the people he had to work with. He learnt krio and adapted himself to the difficulties around. By the end of the 90s, UNICEF offered him the direction of a pioneer programme on the rehabilitation of soldier children. The experience turned him into an authorised voice on this topic, to the point that he eventually became an expert on soldier children for the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

On the year 2010 he returned to Spain, and shortly after, he abandoned the priesthood. Here he coordinates the NGO DYES and writes for the blog “Africa is not a country” published in the newspaper El Pais. He has written the books “Leopard men are extinguishing” (2011) and “Edjengui has fallen asleep” (2016).

He continues defending human rights, working on political advocacy and rising awareness on key aspects of the rehabilitation of soldier children, like the need of an at least six months-stay in a rehabilitation centre in order to get the children speak about their past.

The knowledge acquired in Africa accompanies him every day, it allows him “to see reality with different eyes” and stand “by the oppressed and not the oppressors”. “I believe, in the end, it has helped me improve and grow personally, providing me of sensitivity and a committed lifestyle”, he explains.

Caballero participated in the year 2014 in the second edition of Cities Defending Human Rights. From his experience, he particularly remembers “the great amount of people” he shared those days with. In this edition he hopes to keep tacking the topics he is concerned about, like “the soldier children, the plundering the West is subjecting Africa to and the wars it generates in the continent just to get the raw materials at the minimum cost”. With hope, he suggests “maybe together we can imagine how to make things different for millions and millions of African men and women”.

Interview with Chema Caballero

You are very critical towards Western powers and their role in maintaining armed conflicts in Africa. If you had to point to the main culprits of this persistence, who would they be?

There are no exceptions. From the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to much smaller countries, they all obtain benefits from conflicts in Africa: raw materials, legal and illegal arms trade… and now, the latest business at the expense of the neighbour: the industry of border control. Large corporations gain millions of euros by militarising borders to control migratory fluxes of people who flee from the wars and poverty that we create. Since governments have privatised this sector, the private companies which control it are doing great business and, to maintain them they reproduce an ideology of fear and hatred towards migrants that subtly penetrates our society at all levels.

You are also critical with the justice and reconciliation process after the war in Sierra Leone. What did go wrong?

The giving countries did not invest enough money to help the vast majority of victims to seek justice and get their aggressors to recognise their crimes and ask for forgiveness. In the end, both victims and perpetrators were forced to live together, each of them licking her own wounds and many hoping to eventually get revenge. A war never ends with the end of bloodshed, it is necessary to work on reconciliation and in living together. If this is not done, wounds remain open and the risk of a new conflict is always there.

How is Sierra Leone now?

After the war the country experienced a great economical growth, but this did not have an impact on most of its citizens, who are still living in poverty. It didn’t bring more employment opportunities for young people either, who can’t find a proper way to make a living and they have to resort to the so called informal economy. Additionally, between 2014 and 2016 the country was hit with severity by the Ebola epidemic which led many families and small business to bankruptcy. Once overcome, they have not received any help to start over and rebuild their lives.

On the other side, with the war, rehabilitation and Ebola, some people in the government and some civil servants have gained great sums of money. This has skyrocketed corruption and raised the already existing frustration among the population.

You have raised your voice to denounce the increase in children soldiers. Can’t anything be done to change this tendency from below?

For over a year we are confronted with this sad issue. The number of children soldiers, instead of decreasing, is increasing. It is true that there are more conflicts, but it is also true that armed groups are more and more using minors in their ranks. Cases like that of Al-Shabaab in Somalia or the Kasai conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others, around 75% to 90% of the fighters are under 18. As long as wars exist minors will continue being soldiers and wars seem no near to come to an end, because they bring great wealth to many people, they are a big business. That is why, us citizens, we need to continue organising to demand our governments to change their policies and to start complying with human rights.

In 2016 you published, with the NGO Zerca y Lejos, “Edjengui se ha dormido” (Edjengui has fallen asleep). Have there been any changes since then on the situation of the Baka population? Is Edjengui closer to wake up?

I believe that tasks like the one that is being carried out by Zerca y Lejos for more than 15 years among the Baka people in south Cameroon are having a great impact. Every day more youngsters among the Baka people study and are starting to consider their role in the new society in which they are forced to live, after having been expelled from the rainforest where they have been living for generations in absolute harmony with the environment. They have started to get together and associate to fight for their rights, to have the same opportunities than other citizens in Cameroon and to defend their culture. Every day that goes Edjengui, the spirit of the forest, is closer to wake up and restore the dignity of its people.

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