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

On Everest, Helicopters Rescue Stranded Climbers

Choppers transport some of more than 100 mountaineers trapped after deadly quake, avalanches More

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

In 2005, a Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police; since then, somethings have changed, others not More

US, Japan Announce Historic Revision of Defense Cooperation Guidelines

Nations say new guidelines will be 'cornerstone for peace and security' in Asia-Pacific region while also serving as 'platform for a more stable international security environment' 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.
‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europei
X
Henry Ridgwell
April 26, 2015 10:36 PM
Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video ‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe

Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

January’s terrorist attacks and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants, and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Lisa Bryant visited the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 violence first broke out, and has this report about what has changed and what has not.
Video

Video Gay Marriage Goes Before US Supreme Court

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether gay people have a constitutional right to marriage. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the case could lead to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, or a continuation of the status quo in which individual states decide whether to recognize gay unions.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

VOA Blogs