In DRC tens of thousands of women have been raped at gun point by soldiers, militias, rebels and criminals. In a culture of almost total impunity this 65-70 year old woman was repeatedly raped after her husband was killed in their home in 2005.
Credit: Georgina Cranston/IRIN
The boy was just 15 years old. He had come to surrender his weapons following a joint offensive against militia in Ituri District by the Congolese army and the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), known as MONUC.

It was not the first time the boy had given up his gun. According to the National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reinsertion (CONADER), he was one of 192 children who had been demobilised in October 2005, after attacks by the Congolese national army on militia groups that had refused to disarm.

“I was recruited by force. I couldn’t say no,” the boy explained.

A senior official at CONADER estimated that as many as 10 percent of demobilised child soldiers in Ituri, a district the northeast of DRC, had returned to the battlefield since the launch of a demobilisation and community reinsertion programme in October 2004, despite the presence of numerous child-protection agencies in the region.

Massimo Nicoletti-Altimari, head of the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) in Ituri, blamed recidivism on the power vacuum in the district. “If the authority of the state is not felt, interventions are bound to have limited results,” he said.

Floris Kitoko, a child-protection officer in Ituri for CONADER, said militia prefer to recruit children, who can be easily led. “Children can be drugged, for example, or manipulated. A child under these influences can kill with little difficulty,” Kitoko said.

“I killed so many people over the last three years,” admitted “Wallace”, a former child soldier who now lives on the street. “It was terrible. All my friends are dead now.”

Bienvenu Panda, head of child protection for Unicef in Ituri, said children - in particular girls - effectively become the hostages of militants. “Girls become sex slaves, and then the fear of being rejected by society means that they may refuse to demobilise.”

Unicef has succeeded so far in demobilising 5,300 of the 6,000 children targeted by the reintegration programme. The children had served the militia as soldiers, porters, spies and cooks, to name but a few roles. "The main part of our programme lies not in the demobilisation process itself, but rather in the successful integration of the children into the community,” said Nicoletti-Altimari. This process, he readily admitted, is not easy.

Former child soldiers in the community

In the Lumumba District in the centre of Bunia in northeastern DRC, a vicious fight unfolded. Ten children were relentlessly attacking and beating another child, who struggled in vain to escape the fray. Even though passers-by intervened, the angry mob would not let the other child go. Some even used knives to inflict further injury. One child shouted, “If I had a gun I would kill you!”

It was clear the former child soldiers were not fighting for any particular reason. Sadly, this scene was just one of many playing out around the city. Nicoletti-Altimari acknowledged that it is usually difficult for child soldiers to re-enter community life. To assist in their transition, Unicef and other agencies – including Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Cooperazione International (COOPI) - have established psychosocial support centres, where former child soldiers can stay before returning to their families or, in some cases, to host families.

Papa Hadji has hosted several former child soldiers. His wife said by and large most children adapted well to life with a pencil, and not a gun, in their hand. “There are some children, however, that will just give up on their lessons for a few days, without any warning. They say they are fed up with teachers acting superior and always going on at them,” she said.

Christian Mateso, a close relative of a demobilised ‘kadogo’ (a local term for child soldier), described the potentially volatile behaviour of the ex-fighters: “If a kadogo thinks he will eat at four o’clock and then finds nothing there for him, he will pelt you with stones without even stopping to think. One guardian was injured in such a manner.”

“It is vital that there is much awareness-raising to ease their reintegration,” said Panda. With this in mind, Unicef has funded the creation and training of child-protection committees in schools. With the help of local partner NGOs, Unicef can ensure the children are continually monitored in their communities. In addition, the organisation pays the school fees of 1,600 children who have chosen to continue their studies. Twenty percent of this group are classified as “vulnerable” children, and most of them are orphans. Unicef also helps children who do not want to continue their education become involved in income-generating activities. Almost 200 children throughout Ituri benefit from such programmes.

The draw of the battlefield

In DRC the slow and difficult task of demobilising militias and rebels is underway while fighting still rages. The country is awash with small arms and with them widespread lawlessness.
Credit: David Hecht/IRIN
Papa Hadji’s wife told a story about a particularly difficult child they had hosted, who had been the consort of a major rebel leader. “That child lived with us in the day, but at night hung out with militiamen,” she said.

IRIN had encountered the boy a year ago, scouting out $30 so he could earn his living selling cigarettes. He had been spotted recently in the doorway of a nightclub at midnight – this time in the midst of a negotiation with a prostitute. All attempts to approach him failed: he pulled his hat right down over his face, all the while exhaling smoke through his mouth and nose, as if highly experienced in the practice. He certainly didn’t want to be seen and disappeared soon afterwards.

A local teacher believed these children were highly vulnerable and would be quick to pick up their guns again if the opportunity presented itself.

A case study

Ex-combatant Claude Rambo, 16, said that if his present suffering continues, he is ready to become a soldier once more. “I enrolled as a volunteer six years ago, after I had lost my parents in interethnic conflict,” he said. “I first fought in the Armée du Peuple Congolais (APC), led by Mbusa Nyamwisi, the current Congolese minister of regional cooperation, and then, from 2002, in Thomas Lubanga’s Union des Patriotes Congolais.”

Rambo left the army of his own free will, choosing in 2003 to continue his studies. “I realised I would never be made major, colonel or general, as I hadn’t studied,” he said. However, he had recently stopped attending class once again, this time due to lack of money. “I was fine when I was in the army,” he said. “I ate when I was hungry; I dressed well. I was spoilt by my commanders.”

According to Unicef, a number of children are still outside the reach of reintegration programmes. There are negotiations currently in progress to reintegrate children over age 16 into their communities as part of the ongoing initiative, which is financed by the UN Development Programme and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

“The circumstances in Ituri are very particular. Many children are willing to work to earn a living,” said Nicolletti-Altimari. “They are already responsible adults, sometimes even parents.”

At a training seminar in Mudzi in the north of Bunia along with 44 other children, Rambo expressed how difficult it is for former child soldiers to find their place in the world. “If my life doesn’t change, I want to go back to the army,” he said, raising his voice. But which army? “It doesn’t matter – rebel or government. After all, whether rebel or not, they are all Congolese.”

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