Prospects for children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are darkening, as fighting continues between forces loyal to dissident General Laurent Nkunda and the Congolese army. Protection workers say forced recruitment of children into armed groups has skyrocketed. Noel King has more in this report from Goma.
For children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the misery of life in a camp for the displaced is often not as bad as the other option - being forced into service with an armed militia group.
James Mapendo, who recently turned 18, managed to escape soldiers loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda when they attacked his hometown of Masisi in August.
"They kill people and they take the young to go into the military formation," he said. "They asked me to go in the military but I refused."
James was so worried that he would be forced into Nkunda's army, he fled Masisi without his family. He now lives alone in a sprawling camp for the displaced called Bulengo.
"I come here myself," said James. "My mother and my sisters stayed there. Until now I do not know where is my parents. I wait for them here. Perhaps if God wants, by the will of God, I will see my parents."
The threat of forced recruitment has terrorized children across eastern Congo since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Routed by the ethnic Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, Hutu militias that perpetrated the genocide poured into neighboring Congo. Amid a climate of political instability and chronic violence other armed militia groups sprung up along community and ethnic lines.
Now, a rebellion by dissident General Laurent Nkunda has again placed children at risk of recruitment. Child protection workers say rates of recruitment have risen since renewed fighting erupted in August.
Pernille Ironside is a protection officer with the U.N. Children's Fund in Goma. She spoke to VOA about an emerging tactic of eastern Congo's three main milita groups.
"They are targeting schools, which is a particularly alarming trend," said Ironside. "We have had numerous reports of secondary schools and technical schools being targeted, and children generally over the age of 15 being at greatest risk of being recruited."
While the focus is often on boys who are recruited into militias, the situation is equally grim for young girls.
Abducted from their homes, girls are forced to "marry" militia commanders. Protection officers say they are relegated to the role of sex slaves.
"I think it is always been a grave issue," UNICEF's Ironside explains. "The difficulty is that girls who are kidnapped in some cases develop a tacit acceptance of their situation. They know that were they to go back to their home village or community they would be stigmatized as a result of the fact that they have been raped and borne children by an opposing group."
There are three armed groups accused of recruiting children in eastern Congo.
All three militias are known for their brutality, and members are accused of rape, murder, forced displacement of civilians, and looting.
The FDLR are Hutu militias with links to the perpetrators of Rwanda's genocide. The FDLR storm villages, scoop up children and march them into the bush, UNICEF's Ironside told VOA.
Community-based Mai Mai militias prey on children by telling them it is their duty to fight to protect their villages. UNICEF says children that do not volunteer are often "volunteered" by their parents.
General Nkunda denies recruiting children, but protection workers say he is filling his ranks with youngsters as he continues his campaign against the Congolese army.
UNICEF says there is no evidence the army is recruiting children.
Gusanga, 13, is displaced at Lac Vert, formerly a school, now a camp for about 10,000 displaced Congolese.
He fled the risk of recruitment by the FDLR in the town of Kitchanga.
He says the FDLR kill and loot. He says they force anyone who is 15 or older into the army and then make them serve until age 45.
Most children in Congo's camps for the displaced say they want to return to their homes and their schools. As a complex war rages around them, none of the children know when that will be possible.