News / Africa

Child Soldiers Return to Congolese Wars

Fighters of the rebel Union of Congolese Patriots, one of them a child soldier, man a checkpoint, on the outskirts of Bunia, Congo, (File)
Fighters of the rebel Union of Congolese Patriots, one of them a child soldier, man a checkpoint, on the outskirts of Bunia, Congo, (File)

Multimedia

Audio
Heather Murdock

Since 2003, tens of thousands of children have been removed from warring militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Boys and girls return from the bush traumatized, isolated, uneducated and too old to go back to school.  United Nations statistics say thousands of armed children are still held by militias.   And, many of those that escape, are abducted again by their commanders, or rejoin by choice.

Technically the war in Eastern Congo ended in 2003 with a peace treaty.  Five years later, a power-sharing agreement was negotiated and it ended again.  But, for children like 16-year-old Wetemwami, the fighting has never stopped.

After three years with the Mai Mai, a loosely connected group of militias still fighting in eastern Congo, Wetemwami is learning masonry at a vocational school for demobilized children.  He cannot go to a regular school because, in his society, he is too old.  But he hopes to learn a skill, so he can go home to his village and get a job.

Wetemwami, 16, says he may one day re-join the Congolese militia he served already for three years; He doesn't want to fight, he says, but at least in the military he had a change of clothes
Wetemwami, 16, says he may one day re-join the Congolese militia he served already for three years; He doesn't want to fight, he says, but at least in the military he had a change of clothes

But Wetemwami says life outside the military is hard in Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries.  He says he wants to rejoin the Mai Mai, if it does not get easier.  He says, as a soldier, at least he had a change of clothes.

The United Nations estimates that 3,500 boys and girls are serving in Congolese militias.  But some observers say there are many more.  When children escape the armed groups, many re-join or are taken back by force.

Some children return to militias because of extreme poverty.  Others feel isolated when they get home because they are traumatized, uneducated and viewed as potentially dangerous.  Some were forced to commit crimes in their own communities before they were taken, making them social pariahs.  

Wetemwami says, if he does not rejoin by choice, he may also be caught by his commander, beaten and forced back into service.

Kikandi, 16, says he was abducted by soldiers over a year ago, and forced to join the militia. He wants to go back to his village he says, but he is afraid if they find him, they will take him again.
Kikandi, 16, says he was abducted by soldiers over a year ago, and forced to join the militia. He wants to go back to his village he says, but he is afraid if they find him, they will take him again.

Sixteen-year-old Kikandi says he never volunteered for the militia and will never go back by choice.  In a classroom at the vocational school, he fiddles with a tiny hook, a tool meant to repair shoes.

He says about a year-and-a-half ago, soldiers stormed his village and demanded the young people.  Parents who objected were beaten.   He says his greatest fear is being taken away again.

Jennifer Melton is child protection specialist for The United Nations Children's Fund in Goma, a leading agency in the effort to get children out of the battles in Congo.  She says UNICEF works to provide social services and supplies to villages whenever possible, encouraging demobilized children stay home.  But she says re-recruitment is still common and appears to be happening with increasing frequency.  

"I think the forced recruitment we are really grappling with, because we do not really have good ways of preventing that.  If an armed group goes into a village at night or is calling youth together, we do not really have a grasp on how is the best way we can prevent that," Melton said.

Many children serve on the front lines, raiding villages and battling other militias for control of the population or a portion of the vast riches in minerals found in Congolese mines.  Others are porters, spies, scouts, cooks or bodyguards.  

Melton says girls are also forced to serve as soldiers and as sex slaves.  She says girls have the worst time rejoining society, because when they get out, they are shunned.  Everyone assumes they have been sexually assaulted.  Usually, the assumption is right.

Since 2003, about 30,000 children have been demilitarized with the help of aid workers and growing pressure on commanders not to recruit minors.  Pascal Badibanga Zagabe is the director of the Tumaini Center, the school where Wetemwami, Kikandi and other former child soldiers learn skills like carpentry, mechanics and sewing.  He says mass demobilization has created a new set of problems.

With so many children returned from the wars and so few available resources even the children who do get access to aid, get only limited care.  Last year, the Tumaini Center took on 150 students.  Zagabe says the school had to turn down about that many.

Compared with his current situation, Wetemwami says life in the militia was not that bad.  He says he was never afraid.  Children smoked ganja and drank beer to keep them brave and wore powders and potions known as "Mai Mai magic"”  He says, if a soldier uses the magic and adheres to the magical rules, bullets fly past him or ricochet off his body.

Wetemwami lifts his shirt to show four protruding parallel scars on his chest.  He says bullets grazed him because he broke the rules, by stepping over the blood of the dead during a battle.

In his three years in the bush, 20 of his friends were killed and he killed 50 enemies.  He says his friends died because they also did not follow the magical rules.  Maybe they ate cucumber leaves or touched local plants during a raid.  Maybe they raped a woman.

He shot his enemies because they would have shot him if he was not so quick.  

Wetemwami says commanders told the troops they were fighting for the liberation of Congo.  But he says they sometimes attacked villages already under their control, because they needed money, food or beer.

Kikandi says he rarely participated in raids.  Soldiers would go to battle and he would hide in the bush.

He says when the soldiers returned, the boys that did not fight were beaten with sticks.  But Kikandi says he was afraid to fight because, in his brigade, new recruits were not given magic to protect them.  Kikandi says, in his one year as a soldier, he only killed one man.   Like Wetemwami, he says he is just happy that he shot first.

You May Like

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs