The fighting in the Eastern DRC has left over five million people dead. Thousands of women have been brutally raped and thousands of children have been abducted as child soldiers.
One of the organizations working to rehabilitate and reintegrate child soldiers is Save the Children. Jasmine Whitbread, the CEO of Save the Children UK, has just returned from Eastern DRC. From London, she spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about whether the recent peace deal has actually brought peace to the region.
"I was in Goma in Eastern DRC and the peace process that exists on paper is really not there on the ground. It was very concerning to see the escalation in violence and the huge displacements of people that have been going on in the last few months. The stories from some of the children, in fact, who had escaped from the fighting, who had been abducted and forced to fight as soldiers, were all very shocking," she says.
Whitbread tells the story of some of the child soldiers. “These two boys, they had actually been on a boy scout training camp. And they’d been very ironically learning life saving procedures.… And they had been abducted along with eight boy scouts in total and their leader. And they’d been taken to fight on the front line, as they call it, with a rebel group, and they had just escaped three weeks ago. They’d been out fighting for six months and it was really distressing to hear their stories. Their other friends, boy scouts, two of them died actually fighting and two others had died carrying very heavy loads through the bush. It was a very hard life,” she says.
The former child soldiers said they were forced to do horrible things. “These boys described how they’d been forced to kill people, to loot villages, terrorize villages. And they were clearly extremely distressed. They knew that was a terrible thing to have done. They really felt awful about it, but what they were most concerned about was although they had managed to escape, they had left other children behind,” she says.
She says there were both girls and boys in their “battalion.”
Whitbread says reintegrating former child soldiers into society can be a long and difficult process.
“Save the children is running one of the largest, if not the largest, child soldier reunification programs in Eastern DRC, with hundreds, if not thousands, of children on our case books.… And the question is, what do you do with these children? They’ve seen and been party to some really horrific atrocities. What kind of future do those children have?”
Save the Children provides them with psychological counseling and material support. The boys she spoke of were placed in a foster family near Goma. Whitbread acknowledges the family was nervous about taking them in. “But they felt it was the right thing to do to give these children a chance,” she says. After a while, the foster farther said, “”We realized they were just children.”