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

Video On the Scene: In Gaza, Darkness Brings Dread and Death

Palestinians fear nighttime raids, many feel abandoned by outside world, VOA's Scott Bobb reports More

African Small Farmers Could Be Key to Ending Food Insecurity

Experts say providing access to microloans, crop insurance, better storage facilities, irrigation, road systems and market information could enable greater production More

University of Michigan Wins Solar Car Race

Squad guided its student-designed solar-powered vehicle to fifth consecutive time victory in eight-day bi-annual American Solar Challenge 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.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid