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Congo's Child Soldiers Face Tough Road to Recovery

Tens of thousands of children have been abducted and forced into service by a myriad of armed groups in Congo's chaotic eastern provinces. Many of them are Rwandan boys who were born in Congo following the genocide. On returning to their native Rwanda, the boys face a long road to recovery. Noel King has this report from Muhazi, Rwanda.

Like most children, the boys at the Muhazi center for demobilized child soldiers, just want to have fun.

But after spending years in the service of eastern Congo's armed groups, the biggest struggle for former child soldiers, is behaving like a child.

Habimana, 13, arrived at the center two days ago, after spending a year with a Congolese militia group known as the Mai Mai.

Habimana says he had the rank of private in the Mai Mai and was the armed guard for a captain. He says the Mai Mai did not abduct him, but that he joined the militia. After his father died one year ago, he had nowhere else to go. He says the Mai Mai was the safest place to be.

Habimana left the Mai Mai after he was shot in a gunfight. The Mai Mai took Habimana to a hospital, where doctors handed him over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The ICRC works to find the families of Rwanda's demobilized child soldiers. Until their families are found, the boys stay at Muhazi camp, run by the Rwandan government.

Ally Mugema is a social worker at the Muhazi center. He explains that it is difficult for the boys to re-adjust to civilian life.

"When they are with the armed groups in the forest, they are brutal, they are aggressive, they steal using arms," he noted. "When they are looking for food, they have to use force. A long period in that kind of behavior, it tends to be conditioned. They cannot go in the community with such behavior."

Mugema told VOA that when the boys arrive they marvel at the things that the center provides, like their own shoes and mosquito nets.

The boys are taught how to brush their teeth and the importance of bathing daily.

The center employs teachers who provide the boys a basic education and counselors who urge them to talk about their experiences as child soldiers. Ally Mugema explains.

"We teach literacy and numeracy. We try to teach them how to read and write. They also do counseling for those traumatized," he explained. "We teach them how to do some home activities like sweeping, like washing clothes, like washing saucepans, so by the time they are in the community with their parents, if they are given such an activity, they don't find it so new and complicated."

Still, some habits exhibited by the former child soldiers are hard to break.

In the afternoon, the boys are released from school and they have an opportunity to play. Instead, they hang about in small groups. Unlike other boys their age, they seem unsure of what playtime means.