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UNICEF Appeals for Rehabilitation Funds for Child Soldiers - 2001-08-21

The U.N. Children's Fund says more than 220 former child soldiers forcibly recruited by Congolese rebels are back in Rwanda undergoing rehabilitation. UNICEF says the rebels seized the children in northwestern Rwanda and took them to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The children, who range in age from 10 to 18 years old, came back into Rwandan hands in late May, after clashes in northwestern Rwanda between government troops and rebel infiltrators from the neighboring DRC.

UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says the Rwandans captured about 1,000 of the rebel soldiers. She says among them were several hundred children. "The children that we are talking about, the 227 children were handed over to UNICEF by the Rwandan Patriotic Army," Ms. Belmonte says. "They had been working either as porters or child soldiers in the DRC and in an area of conflict. So, they have been going back and forth over the border."

Ms. Belmonte says nearly 300 children were taken into custody by the Rwandans early this month. She says 85 percent of the children are Rwandan and will participate in a rehabilitation program run by UNICEF near Kigali. She says about 45 of the children are Congolese and have been returned to Goma in eastern Congo.

She says the UNICEF office in Rwanda suspects there may be as many as 200 more children still with the rebels. Ms. Belmonte says each component of the rehabilitation program is critical. "If we limit our intervention to the basic assistance food, clothing, immediate medical needs we are only meeting the most basic of needs," she says. "A really important part of the re-integration has to do with providing some kind of education, whether it is formal primary school, or non-formal or vocational depending on the age. You are talking about children between the ages of 10 and 18 who have been exposed to fighting and combat day by day by day."

Besides providing basic needs, Ms. Belmonte says the rehabilitation program also will give the children psychological counseling and trace families to get them back to their homes.

UNICEF is appealing for $400,000. It says this is how much it costs to rehabilitate 500 former child soldiers for one year.