DRC: helping child soldiers find the road home
In eastern DRC there is a centre that has helped over 1,500 former child soldiers reintegrate with their communities. The ICRC provides material support and plays the crucial role of reconnecting the children with their families. Bernard Barrett reports from Bukavu.
The centre is operated by the Bureau for Volunteer Service for Children and Health (BVES). In the last five years, it has taken care of over 1,500 former child soldiers, including 173 girls.
" We have to rein troduce them to the basic notion of family, " explains Mamy Wema, a social worker at a centre in Bukavu for former child soldiers. " When they were with the armed groups, they saw mothers and fathers as objects; they haven't experienced parental roles or family love in a long time. That's an important part of our work here. "
The children stay at the centre a minimum of three months before returning to their families. They are taught basic skills to ease their reintegration, including basic literacy or remedial classes for those with previous schooling, recreational activities to improve socialization skills as well as handicrafts, farming and other occupational skills.
Psychosocial services and health clinic
The centre also provides psychosocial services and a health clinic. " Some of the children have sexually transmitted diseases, pulmonary infections, or even gunshot wounds, " explains one of the centre's nurses Adolphine Nsimire. " Some of the girls are pregnant and all are suffering from malnutrition. "
The ICRC provides material support for the centre, and searches for the families of the children from outside Bukavu, including neighbouring countries like Rwanda and Uganda. Once the family is located it organizes the exchange of Red Cross messages and the eventual reunification of the child with his or her family.
The Director of the BVES, Murhabazi Namegabe says the various armed groups have a deliberate strategy of moving children to different regions to keep them separated from their families. " With the poor communications infrastructure in the region, only an organization like the ICRC has the kind of extensive network and access to remote areas required to find the families, " he says.
Coming home isn't easy
" Even when these young people are reunited with their families, their problems continue, " says Marnie Lloyd, an ICRC Protection Delegate in Bukavu. " There is the trauma of what they have experienced. Their social network has broken down, and they may have been without contact with their families for a long time. They have usually missed schooling and some have become accustomed to using violence to get what they want. The family or the community may be afraid of former child soldiers and sometimes they also need to be re-educated to foster acceptance of these children. "
" Red Cross messages are a means of re-establishing contact between the child and the family, " she explains. " This renewed contact is important to re-establish the connections and trust required to obtain the agreement on both sides before a family reunification can take place. "
" Red Cross messages are frequently the first contact between the child and the family after many years. The y often include photos and when the messages are delivered it can be a very emotional experience, " she says.
The tall 17-year-old sits in the main hall of the BVES centre for former child soldiers in Bukavu. For the interview, he has chosen the name of Ramazani to protect his real identity.
" At first I thought it was a good life – as long as I was armed, nothing could hurt me. But much later I realized I had no future, I was wasting my life. "
A soldier from the age of seven
" I joined an armed group at the age of seven, " he explains, " With the security situation in North Kivu at the time, and all the abuses, rapes and looting, I joined to protect myself and my family. I didn't have time to discuss it with my family but I thought they would be proud that I was protecting them. " During the next ten years he was used often as a scout, but he says he took part in all activities including robbery and often acted as a bodyguard for senior commanders.
" One day I realized others my age had ambitions and plans for their life. I was in the army, but had nothing. I was losing my childhood. " Shortly afterwards, he fled the armed group and turned himself over to the United Nations Mission in Congo which referred him to the BVES centre. When he first went to the United Nations centre, he did not contact his family, for fear the armed group would find him again.
Since then the ICRC has found his family and they have been exchanging Red Cross Messages. He says he is not worried about acceptance. " The Red Cross messages have been very important in regaining contact with my family and the community accepts that we worked to protect them. "
Red Cross messages double-edged
But he adds the Red Cross messages have been double-edged. His parents thought he was dead and there has been the joy of learning they are all alive. However, he has also learned his parents are now displaced by the fighting in the area. " I worry about their living conditions as refugees in their own province. "
He says he knows that on a humanitarian level, all children are the same, but he also knows there are differences. " Other young people my age have more schooling. They have learned a trade or how to work the fields. I know how to use weapons. I have army experience but I have learned no other activity. I don't have an activity to contribute to the life of the community. "
Ramazani says he wants to become an automobile mechanic. But his home province of North Kivu is still the scene of ongoing fighting. " I know how to handle weapons, and with the insecurity I am not sure I will have the opportunity to become a mechanic. "
No moral education
Since arriving at the BVES centre in Bukavu, he has changed. He says he was in poor health before, but now he has recuperated. " I have also learned the value of civilian lives; before I had no moral education. Now I have hope to return to my family; before I didn't have any hope. "
He says he feels safe at the centre and he is certain he will go back to his family although he doesn't know when. But there are still many child combatants, he says, " there are many younger than me and I wonder how they are living, what they are suffering. "
The 16-year-old girl agreed to be identified as Munezero for the interview.
" It was in 2005, I was 14 and went with my father to work in the fields, " says Munezero. An armed group operating in the area came and took her that day, sending her father home.
" I cannot forget the day they took me. I thought I was going to be killed as that was a frequent practice. But they told me they needed people to join and that I would become a fighter like them. " She explains the group came many times to local villages to take people. Those who tried to flee were shot.
" We were assigned to guard duty, either at night or during the day, and then taken back to the camp afterwards. I was always afraid, I saw friends die and I was always looking for a way to escape. "
When the militia group arrived at a centre for the integration of armed groups into the regular army, Munezero first learned of the BVES, a Bukavu organization which runs a centre for former child soldiers.
"He made me his woman"
" But I had problems with my commander who didn't want me to leave because he had made me his woman. However, when he learned I was pregnant he repudiated me, " explains Munezero.
Since her capture by the armed group, Munezero has had contact with her parents only once, when the group was near her home. " That is my big concern, " she says, " seeing my parents. "
A social worker from the BVES centre has visited her family and even brought back a picture of them. The social worker told her the family now knows she has a child and will accept them both.
But Munezero is still concerned. " In this economic situation, I am worried whether my poor family will be able to support me and my child who doesn't even have a father. In my community it is difficult for a woman with a child to find a husband. "
" If the BVES centre can help me in my reintegration, I can help my child. If God is willing, I hope someday to find a husband who will accept me and my child. "