The Democratic Republic of Congo will hold a second round in its post-war presidential election in October, in hopes of ending years of violence, misrule and corruption. But for many children, both former child soldiers and homeless city kids, the election seems a far cry from their daily struggles to survive.
This demobilization center -- in Bukavu, on the border with Rwanda -- has a classroom for former child soldiers. More than 30,000 boys and girls under 18 -- some much younger -- were forced to become fighters, porters or sexual slaves by militias, rebel groups and the army.
Here, they study, play and try to recover from their ordeals. Some had already escaped Rwanda's genocide as infants.
This is Mukeshimana. She does not want her face to be seen, fearing she will be kidnapped again and punished as a deserter.
She says she ran away from a militia group to get here. She says she never wanted to be a fighter.
The center's director, Murhabazi Nawegabe, says more than 3,000 children have come here since 2002, and most never want to leave. “I hope the future army will exempt children. It should not have a single boy or girl under 18. The new government must rehabilitate these thousands of children who had their pens and notebooks taken away, and given grenades and guns to go fight. The government must rehabilitate them so they can become full citizens again."
In big cities, like the capital Kinshasa, the future for many children seems even bleaker.
These are street kids who spend their days getting high on whatever drugs or pills they can find. Aid workers say there are more than 40,000 homeless children in Kinshasa alone.
A 12-year-old is known to his friends as “four-by-four.” He says his mother died when he was 10. He says his father's new wife accused him and his brother of being bad spirits, so they ran away. He says he likes to fight.
His hands bear the marks of his hard life. Other kids show off tattoos they made themselves with pens. They say these images give them strength to survive.
But aid worker Fatouma expresses her dismay. She says one of the kids in the group is already 20 and does not know how to do anything except survive. She says it is not normal, and hopes the new president can do something to improve the situation.
In the meantime, Fatouma says she is trying to teach these children basic hygiene, like the importance of bathing. But those lessons quickly turn into just passing time and having fun, a temporary respite from the children's grim reality.