Mayi-Mayi child soldiers for reintegration

Some 44 child combatants formerly allied to the Mayi-Mayi militia have left Dubie, in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Katanga Province, for the provincial capital, Lubumbashi, where they are to undergo psychological counselling and vocational training, officials said.

"They need to get away from here," Adam Zakari, a child protection officer for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said on Thursday. "They have been rejected by their communities and their families."

The children are between 12 and 17 years old, said Placide Kutela, one of two workers from Platforts, a Lubumbashi-based NGO. Four of the combatants were girls, two of whom had newborn babies.

"Many of the children are clearly traumatised," Kutela said. "When we started asking them questions many froze in fear."

The Mayi-Mayi, who say their leader is a man named Gedeon, have in the recent past controlled a 200 sq km-area between the towns of Pweto, Mitwaba and Manono. At least 100,000 civilians have fled their villages and are currently living in camps for the displaced in towns on the periphery.

The child combatants began arriving in Dubie in November, along with 18,000 displaced civilians, when the army began an operation to flush out the Mayi-Mayi.

"Normally what you do with child combatants is try to find their families, but this situation is different," Zakari, who is based in Lubumbashi, said. "We know that 28 of the children have families here in the displaced [people's] camps, but either the families have disowned them or are afraid that if they take back the child, the other displaced families in the camp will ostracise the whole family."

Another 10 children have parents who are among some 100 adult Mayi-Mayi fighters who also surrendered to the army in Dubie.

"The adult Mayi-Mayi are the responsibility of the military," said Willy Kabaswangani, an official from the National Commission for Demobilisation and Reintegration, known as CONADER.

He added: "The military has not said whether the adults are to be imprisoned, demobilised or integrated into the nation army."

However, the army must turn over under-age combatants to CONADER in accordance with Congolese law, Kabaswangani said.

There are currently around 30,000 child combatants in the DRC, he said. In Katanga, more than 900 have already been reintegrated into society, but the children's reintegration only began in Lubumbashi in mid-January.

More child combatants are scheduled to travel to Lubumbashi in the coming days from Dubie and other towns in the province. On Thursday, officers in the army's 622nd Battalion in Dubie provided the initial list of underage Mayi-Mayi, which was verified by Platforts officials.

Child protection officers from UNICEF and the UN Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, also came to Dubie to observe the process.

"Normally, after verification, the children are the responsibility of CONADER, but here the army is still guarding them all the way to the transit centre in Lubumbashi," Zakari said. "Once there, they will be rehabilitated back into civilian society."

"The process should take between two to three months," he said. "We'll test their aptitudes and try to put them on a career path. Then comes the hard part of trying to rejoin them with their families and reintegrate them back into their communities."

Zakari said forgiveness would take time, particularly if the fighting continued.

"Worse still, it is possible that the children are recaptured by the Mayi-Mayi," he added, noting that sometimes other options had to be found, such as creating housing for them away from their families.