Recent high profile moves against militia commanders in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have done little to stem child recruitment into armed groups, and much more needs to be done to prevent it, stop re-recruitment, and rehabilitate victims.
On 9 June, the International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmed charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against former Congolese general Bosco Ntaganda, including the “enlistment and conscription of child soldiers under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities”.
The case of Ntaganda follows the successful prosecution of Thomas Lubanga in 2012, who was found guilty of conscripting child soldiers in northeastern DRC.
By 2011, the World Bank found that more than 30,000 Congolese child soldiers had been officially demobilized from the ranks of armed groups and reunited with their families after being engaged in the conflict in DRC.
Since 1996 the practice of recruiting children under the age of 15, the ICC’s criminal age threshold, from eastern and central parts of the DRC, has become a systematic and widespread process carried out by all fighting fractions.
Despite ongoing efforts by the international community to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers, a recent report of the UN Stabilization Mission in DRC (MONUSCO) revealed that between 2012 and 2013 alone, nearly 1,000 children had been recruited by military groups fighting particularly in the provinces of North and South Kivu in eastern DRC.
A former commander of a Mai-Mai militia, operating in the North and South Kivu provinces, told Donatien Nduwimana, the author of a 2013 study on reintegration of child soldiers: “Children are available as they have nothing else to do, they are extremely obedient to orders, they make few demands, which are easy to satisfy.”
As a result, armed groups developed sophisticated methods to reinforce their troops with minors. These children are forced to work as cooks, spies and soldiers fighting directly on the frontlines, and for purposes of sexual enslavement. Homes and schools, normally considered safe havens, became regular targets of military raids to abduct the children.
According to William Lifongo, child protection adviser and deputy chief of MONUSCO’s Child Protection Section, boys and girls “were persuaded to join. They joined because they were promised education; they were promised jobs; they were promised military rewards within the groups. Some of them said they joined because that was the way to protect themselves; they thought that this was a way of finding security around them.”
Lubanga verdict impact
Mariana Goetz, former deputy director of the British NGO Redress, noted that in DRC the use of children as part of the armed groups had become normalized, especially before the conviction of Lubanga.
“When one explained the concept of child recruitment, people were often confused. They obviously saw the crimes like pillaging, rape, murder as the main crimes. The child recruitment for them was seen like almost an obligation or right of the armed groups... The community had sent whatever they have got to support the war effort of their ethnic leader, and that would be a cow, or a child or whatever they had,” she told IRIN.
Luc Walleyn, legal representative in the Lubanga case at the ICC for 22 of the 133 victims, many of whom were children, explained that even some of his clients were not aware of the fact that their very recruitment was a crime under international criminal law.
“They felt that they were victims of criminal behaviour in the way they have been treated by commanders, as they were confronted with horrible conditions in the training camps and in the war situations,” said Walleyn.
Since the guilty verdict, however, there is more awareness of the crime of recruiting child soldiers. “The conviction serves more as a deterrent. Warlords are recruiting in hiding. They do everything not to display these children during visits to their strongholds,” Bumba Nicaise, executive secretary of human rights NGO Justice Plus, told IRIN. “I found that they’re fearful, because they’re aware of the prosecution.”
But attitudes towards Lubanga are complex in the country. Among certain communities, he is still treated as a local hero. Jason Msafiri, a local freelance journalist, estimates that more than 80 percent of the Hema community was looking forward to the release of Lubanga.
“They found him to be a liberator of the massacres committed by the Lendu. Plus, he educated the extremist elements to be more moderate,” Msafari told IRIN.
Why DDR failed in the past
The government has initiated a number of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes over the years, with limited success.
“A large number of current rebel fighters have been through demobilization programmes, only to be re-recruited by rebel groups. Many found no alternative livelihood. Their former leaders pressured them to re-join, or they were prompted to do so by continuing insecurity in their home areas,” noted a paper on Congolese armed groups published by the Rift Valley Institute and the Usalama Project.
Particularly for children, “the [National Commission for Demobilization and Reintegration - CONADER, established in 2004 and now defunct] programme hadn’t been able to adapt to the realities on the ground,” a UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) officer who preferred anonymity told IRIN. “NGOs haven’t been successful, and as a result we still have social problems like delinquency, banditry and child recruitment to armed groups.”
“DDR had three parts, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. The failure that people talk about is in reintegration. And that’s the fault of the community and the state - communities do no properly supervise and monitor the demobilized, and the state does not ensure safety,” said Flory Kitoko, a former CONADER officer.
"Mechanisms for reintegration of children are getting better after the experiences of past failures," said Aimé Birido, coordinator of the NGO AJEDEC (Youth Association for Community Development) which looks after separated children in Orientale Province.
Early on in the DDR process, reintegration of children was being done in a similar manner to that of adults, with limited success, Birido noted.
But, since then, changes have been made to the way that DDR is conducted for children. In a review of its DRC programmes to protect children in emergencies published in August 2013, UNICEF said that since 2008, it has been able to provide “over 24,000 individualized packages of care, education and skills trainings for boys and girls released from the armed forces and armed groups”.
The study also noted that child recruitment numbers appear to be falling, and “the age of recruitment appears to have increased.”
“Reintegration is a long-term, kind of multi-dimensional process. It involves so many stakeholders - family, civil society, community, church, legal system, and donors,” said Buken Waruzi, senior programme manager for Africa and Middle East at NGO WITNESS. “It takes time for everyone in the community to understand that the identity of the child soldier should not be a criminalizing or a shameful identity.”
NGOs carrying out the reintegration process often have to negotiate with families to take back and accept their sons and daughters. However, “sometimes children are rejected by their own family,” said Tom Gillhespy, head of Africa programmes at NGO Peace Direct.
“They may be seen as bringing shame on the family, or sometimes the recruitment process required them to act violently towards people that they are knew in order to break their social ties. So a lot of the tactics used in militia recruitment can actually actively undermine their social reintegration,” he added.
No data, follow-ups
One of the main challenges in assessing the success of DDR programmes for children is the lack of available data about what happens once they have been reintegrated.
“Generally after the demobilization a lot of them are still in conflict with their own families. A lot of them are just street children. They are poor, jobless, homeless, working in some mines digging gold or riding a bike to make taxi services,” said Walleyn.
“Some of them are happily reintegrated. But those who are doing well, they are very few - maybe be 7-10 percent.” Even those who received education or vocational training struggle today to make their living, because after school there is nothing to do. They can’t find a job, they can’t find anything,” said Waruzi.
UNICEF acknowledged in its study that “gaps identified were the scarce information on recruited girls and poor documentation and analysis of follow-up after reintegration, hampering determination of longer term outcomes and the true extent of re-recruitment.”
Waruzi argued that the government needs to do more to offer long-term assistance to former child soldiers. “NGOs can collect grants here and there, but these grants will help only for few years,” he noted. “The reintegration is a lifetime process. Let's say a child came back from camp with HIV - can you intervene for only one, two, three years? It has to be for the entire life.”
*additional reporting by Richard Pituwa