James Mapundo, who just turned 18, speaks French, English and Swahili and would really like to go back to school to learn another language. Instead, he is stranded in an expanding camp for displaced Congolese called Bulengo, now home to 13,000 people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province.
Mapundo is one of an estimated 370,000 civilians to have fled their homes since hostilities resumed between dissident general Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the People's Defence (NCPD) and the Congolese army in December 2006.
He, like thousands of other young people, is now at risk of forcible recruitment into armed groups who control much of North Kivu.
"[The NCPD] kill people and they take the young to go into the military formations," Mapundo told IRIN. "They asked me to go in the military, but I refused."
Despite his precarious situation, Mapundo is one of the lucky ones. Many other children have not escaped armed groups, though statistics are unclear because access to most of the population is hindered by ongoing fighting.
Humanitarian workers, though, say recruitment of children into armed militias has skyrocketed since the latest bout of fighting erupted six weeks ago.
"Organisations working in child protection have noticed a dramatic increase of the recruitment of kids into armed groups,” said Patrick Lavand’Homme, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Goma.
Protection workers note that other disturbing trends have emerged since the current flare-up began.
"[The militia groups] are targeting schools,” said Pernille Ironside, a protection officer in Goma with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “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 have been recruited into armed groups, the situation for girls is equally critical, protection workers say.
Girls who are abducted are forced to become "wives" to the military commanders - relegating them to the role of sex slaves.
Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
|Patrick Lavand'Homme, head of office, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs|
Unlike boys, girls always remain behind the scenes in rebel camps, making it more difficult for protection workers to gain access to them.
"It's always been a grave issue," Ironside told IRIN. "The difficulty is that girls who are kidnapped by armed groups … in some cases develop a tacit acceptance of their situation. They know that were they to go back to their home community they would be stigmatised as a result of the fact that they have been raped and borne children by an opposing group.”
The forced recruitment of children has struck fear into the hearts of many of the displaced who say they will not leave the camps and return home until their security can be assured.
“I have heard of a lot of children being recruited, even the little girls,” said Ame Muhima, the president of a grouping of 4,000 displaced families waiting to be integrated into formal camps for the displaced outside of Goma.
“There were 17 children who have escaped and come back to us here,” Muhima said.
Protection workers say children are no longer being recruited by the Congolese army but by any one of three main militia groups operating in the region; and they face the risk of recruitment in more ways than one.
Mayi-Mayi militia groups tell children it is their responsibility to fight to protect their villages from other armed groups. Spurred by a sense of duty, children often volunteer themselves for service. Those who resist are “volunteered” by their parents.
The Forces Démocratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), an ethnic Hutu militia group with links to the perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, employ a different tactic.
‘The FDLR are known to sweep into a village and literally scoop up all of the children of a certain age and march them off into the bush,” Ironside told IRIN.
If caught, children captured during the recent eruptions in violence are held in squalid prisoner-of-war (PoW) camps by the various armed groups. Forces loyal to Nkunda are widely reported to be holding underage PoWs.
Civilians caught in crossfire
Humanitarian workers hope for a cessation of hostilities but say they believe the situation in North Kivu could instead deteriorate, citing increased military activities in the region.
Resource-rich eastern Congo has long been a simmering cauldron of conflict as rag-tag militias aligned along ethnic lines fight for control of the region.
A 1998-2003 war pulled in seven neighbouring nations and cost an estimated four million lives, mostly from hunger and disease.
Humanitarian workers note that civilians, including children, bear the brunt of the fighting and will continue to do so as the conflict rages on.
|When I'm 15,
I would prefer to be in school; but when we turn
15, then they catch us
Outside the Bulengo site, 13-year-old Gusanga spends his days wandering among the hastily constructed straw huts asking for someone to give him a pen.
Proud of his fluent French and Swahili, and mature beyond his years, the boy volunteers his services as a translator to visitors.
One month ago, he fled the risk of recruitment by FDLR militias in nearby Kitchanga town.
"Everyone who is 15 or older has to join them in the fighting," Gusanga told IRIN. "When I’m 15, I would prefer to be in school; but when we turn 15 then they catch us."