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
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid