Julienne Mouala first learnt about child psychology when she started working as a young teacher at a school in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR). Taking time to listen to every child in her class, she tried to uncover the stories, thoughts and worries of each pupil.

In March 2013, the Seleka rebel coalition seized power in CAR from former President François Bozizé. In a response to the Seleka’s brutal rule, militias, the so-called anti-Balaka, plunging the country into a cycle of violence and revenge killings.

When the violence reached her neighbourhood in Bangui, Julienne took refuge in a nearby church. On Christmas eve, the church came under heavy attack. She explains:

Everybody was running and children fell on the floor. Nobody looked at them. People trampled on them.

Julienne hurried back into the church and picked up the children who had fallen:

I put them all in one corner of the church and protected them. When the gunfire was over, their parents were able to pick them up.

As conflict between the country’s armed factions intensified, Julienne decided to dedicated herself to protecting the children who had lost their parents and arrived in Bangui unaccompanied.

She now works as a Psychosocial Advisor at Femmes Hommes Action Plus (FHAP), a non-governmental organisation working for the protection of vulnerable children and women. Conciliation Resources has been working in close collaboration with and to support this work of FHAP since 2012.

For Julienne, the psychosocial work with children is a crucial element in the country’s path to peace and stability:

These children have witnessed many bad things. Their parents were killed in front of their eyes. Their mothers have been raped in their presence. How can they forget? Children are imitators. They have seen people with guns. They have seen the anti-Balaka (armed group) with their machetes.

Since the beginning of the conflict, she often sees children make guns out of wood and pretend to be armed rebels:

This is really dangerous. If we are not careful, these children will be future rebels.

To address these issues, Julienne helped to establish child-friendly spaces in Bangui’s internally displaced person sites. In these spaces, Julienne and her colleagues from FHAP do not only show children how they can play in a non-violent way, but most importantly create space for them to talk about their experiences.

Today, Bangui is mostly calm, though this relative peace remains fragile. Many of Bangui’s inhabitants still feel the consequences of the violence and experience traumatic stress. However, with the help of Julienne and FHAP, some of the children are now able to go back to school and play with other children.

This story was first published in The KOFF Peacebuilding Magazine. Find out more about our work in the Central African Republic.