‘WARI, wari!” the children shout as they run along our vehicle.
I would learn later that “wari” referred to woman in the local language, sangho.
In a Muslim-dominated society, women in combat with guns slung across their breasts is not a common sight, but in Birao, on the northern tip of Central African Republic (CAR), the female troops serving under the United Nations peace mission, MINUSCA, have made their presence felt.
The women are deployed as part of Zambian troops in the northern region of this war-torn country.
The Zambian troops were first deployed to CAR in 2015, but it is only recently that women were included in the battalions, partly because of the cultural and religious barriers that prevented men from interacting with women and carrying out certain operations.
Today, the Female Engagement Team (FET) is an integral part of ZAMBATT, as the Zambian battalion is popularly known, with its own programmes apart from the core mission of peacekeeping.
And for the local women, members of FET are angels in camouflage, helping some of the most vulnerable members in their communities.
Today, the troops are headed to a small outpost called Tomou, led by FET commander Capt. Sharon Namuchimba.
And it is here that I meet a boy called Tukusi.
He is an eight-year-old with bright eyes and a beautiful smile, wearing an oversized number 11 jersey for Roma player Pedro.
But war has robbed Tukusi of his childhood. He has to take care of his grandmother, mother and uncle, who all suffer from mental illness.
Before they were discovered by the Zambian troops, the family was living in one of the communities, but they were ostracized and no-one would care of them.
The family now lives in a tent mounted just a few metres from a small camp for Zambian troops.
It is the only place where they can find safety and food.
Every day, Tukusi walks across the barbed wire into the Zambian camp for get food for his family.
He has become very familiar with the soldiers, and has even learned to speak English, and a bit of Bemba.
When we arrive at the white tent, the female troops lay down their weapons and get down to work, cleaning, slashing and cooking for the family.
Three women trained in nursing care attend to Tukusi’s grandmother and uncle, who look frail.
Of course in this region, one cannot completely let the guard down. A few members of FET take positions in the surrounding bushes, their guns drawn.
Just in case.
But under a tree, Captain Belinda Zimba and Lieutenant Clementine Zulu are having difficulties attending to Tukusi’s grandmother.
She is restless and shaking. She appears afraid and cannot let the nurses check her vitals.
The nurses call Tukusi to calm her grandmother, assuring her that they would not harm her.
“They are going to kill me,” the old woman whimpers.
Tukusi laughs off her grandmother’s fears, and finally manages to calm her down, and makes her sit under the tree.
Lt. Zulu understands the old woman’s fears.
“She is one woman who is terrified by people around her. You can see she is shaking out of fear,” explains Lt. Zulu, as she strokes the woman to try and assure her.
She thinks the woman’s reaction is as a result of the trauma she has suffered because of the war, and war crimes such as rape.
“As medical, we think this is posttraumatic stress disorder that she is having. Many people here have suffered it. We do come across a lot of such cases,” she says.
The old woman is also missing her toe, probably as a result of torture in the past.
According to Lt. Zulu, a few times the old woman or daughter have been raped, Tukusi has rushed to the Zambian camp to report.
After checking their vitals, the nurses clean the old woman, clipping her nails.
They also give Tukusi’s uncle a clean shave and clean clothes, before serving them some food.
For the first time, I see a slight smile on the old woman’s face.
For the female troops, there is a deep sense of satisfaction.
“For me this is beyond duty; the fact that I’m able to reach out to an old, neglected woman in a country where they don’t even know she exists is a great achievement,” says Lt. Zulu.
Mission over, the troops jump back on the gun trucks and drive across the dusty settlement to meet a woman called Mama Dilingo.
She is a leper believed to be in her late eighties. The flesh-eating disease has left her with only stumps for her hands and feet.
And like in many societies, lepers are not treated very kindly here.
Mama Dilingo was forced to live alone, isolated from the rest of the community, and without the care of her family.
When the FET team discovered the old leper, she was living in a crumbling little house.
They built her a decent, albeit small, house and, from time to time, visit her to monitor her health, and clean her house.
Lt. Zulu gives Mama Dilingo a dry bath, and later gives her a clean change of clothes and some hot porridge.
The old leper bursts into loud singing in a local dialect, and although none of the troops can understand the language, the message is clear.
“We are very happy and proud as ZAMBATT that we are able to give back to the community where we are based.
The women are deployed as part of Zambian troops in the northern region of this war-torn country. over 365 days – this is home to us,” says Capt. Zimba.
She describes the relationship FET has created with the community as very warm.
“When they see the blue helmets of ZAMBATT, then they know they are safe, and indeed they are safe, because we provide the security that is needed,” she says.
And for the captain, it is all about winning the hearts and minds of the locals, even if it takes helping one old woman.
But the work FET is doing goes beyond helping vulnerable individuals like Mama Dilingo and Tukusi’s family.
And so the team is involved in empowering the women with life skills such as farming, baking and tailoring.
Just outside the ZAMBATT headquarters, near a stream, FET has been teaching women vegetable gardening.
One morning, about 200 women had converged on the field to learn how to spray chemicals in their vegetables.
One woman could not hide her excitement as she held the nozzle of the sprayer and watched the liquid gush out.
There are five women’s clubs, each with about 500 women in this area. The women are taught different skills meant to empower them economically.
One of the clubs is headed by an elderly woman called Mama Fatima Adam. She is loud and boisterous.
Mama Fatima says the help FET has been giving the women will help them not to depend on their husbands all the time.
FET has also been involved in sensitising women on the importance of disarmament, a very critical programme in a region where even a simple matter such as a family feud can be settled by
the gun. FET talks to women to try and convince their husbands and children to hand over their weapons and find peaceful means to resolve their differences.
And in the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections held in the country on December 27, 2020, FET engaged women to teach them on the importance of taking part in elections by voting.
But in a conflict zone – and one as isolated as Birao – the Zambian female troops are also an inspiration to the young women.
“Here I think, for these women, we are their role models. That is why when we drive around you hear them shouting ‘wari, wari’,” says Lt. Zulu.
“They are really inspired by us the female soldiers and they admire living a normal life. When we talk to them, they say they are tired of the conflict. They want to give birth and see their children grow.”
But a normal life is not something this country can guarantee yet.