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

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations 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.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs