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Democratic Republic of the Congo: former child soldiers going home

12-08-2010 Feature

Fifteen children, until recently soldiers, are greeted in Bukavu on their way home. It's the end of an ordeal marked by combat, pillage and rape. Marie-Servane Desjonquères reports from South Kivu.

©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
In the courtyard of Bukavu's Centre for Volunteer Child-care and Health Work, ex-child soldiers dance to celebrate their imminent return home. 

©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
Franck, 17, sitting besides ICRC's Julien Kasongo, who has been responsible for tracing the children's parents: "I was tired of seeing my people killed and my village looted." 

©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
A dormitory at the Bukavu centre. Former child soldiers have to start over from zero, from the absolute basics of living in society. 

They sit quietly in a circle, but there's excitement in the air. The ICRC is coming, and that must mean good news. Murhabazi Namegabe, director of Bukavu's Centre for Volunteer Child-care and Health Work, introduces the visitors. The children are immediately on their feet clapping. Julien Kasongo knows the centre well, and he has been responsible for tracing the children's parents. " We've come to announce that the 15 children from Hombo who have received messages from their families are going home today " , he says smiling as he's drowned out by cries of joy. " Quiet! Quiet! " demands the director. Suddenly tambourines emerge from nowhere and rubber flip-flops beat a happy cadence. The children burst into song.

They are observed silently by other children seated on benches, those whose turn has not yet come. But after a moment the music gets the best of them, their shoulders begin to twitch and they tap the rhythm of the tambourine with their hands. And soon everyone gathered there in the yard, including the ICRC team and Centre director, is swaying to the beat.

 Forced to kill  

Later, I talk to Emmanuel, one of the boys going home today. Sitting in the director's office his eyes brim over. " If joy could kill, I'd be dead already. " He's 15, a little intimidated by these muzungus , these whites who want to interview him. " One day I was coming home from school and some men with guns grabbed me. They took me into the forest and taught me how to shoot. There were a lot of other children like me there, and they made us steal and kill people and rape women. They had marijuana and alcohol, but I didn't want to take any and they didn't force me. "

Emmanuel was 13 when he was recruited. After two violent years in the forest, his rebel group was incorporated into the Congolese army and he was free to leave. With the help of UNICEF, the UN mission in the Congo and the Bukavu centre, Emmanuel and other children were transferred to Bukavu. There their weapons were taken and they were given civilian clothes along with a kit that enabled them to wash and wear clean clothing. 70 children from across the country ranging in age from eight to 17 are now being prepared to resume normal life with the help of schooling or being taught a trade.

 Always the same nightmare  

Faustin is 17 and comes from Masisi territory, north of Goma. He has long eyelashes and sports orange polish on his fingernails and blue on his toenails. " I want to be pretty, like a girl " , he says laughing. Under his blue sleeveless shirt full of holes, he has the muscular body of an athlete, the effect of heavy burdens he had to carry from the age of eight. Faustin was abducted when rebels looted his village, and for nine years he fought in three different rebel groups until he was demobilized earlier this year. " When I was on guard during the night, sometimes I would drift off to sleep, and I would always have the same nightmare: bullets were whizzing and whining all around me, hundreds of bullets. And there I was all alone with my rifle. " One day, Faustin was wounded by a real bullet. It went right through his leg. Today, Faustin wants to become a man of great character, like the uncle he so admires, who has helped him and protected him. " I'll tell children who want to go out and fight that it's not a good thing. "

When he was all of 10 years old, Franck joined an armed group of his own free will. " I wanted to fight the enemy, " he explains. " I was tired of seeing my people killed and my village looted. " Owing to his young age, he was made to carry the " grigri " , the group amulet, and other objects believed to contain magic powers that would protect them. The older members believed that his young age, his " purity " , would shield them.

Today a rangy youth of 17, Franck wrings his hands and speaks with difficulty as he relates his often confused memories. " At the time I didn't think about things, I was simply incapable of feeling. I was too little. "

 Relearning the art of living in society  

When he was 12, Franck was handed a gun and began taking part in the fighting. As the years went by and victories were won and defeats suffered, he changed sides. He was even demobilized at one point, but he left the reception centre he had been placed in. " I told them not to take me back, that I was going to go out and save the country. " In 2008, he was demobilized again when the group to which he belonged was incorporated into the Congolese army. But he was not able to return to his strife-torn home area and instead he has been patiently learning the welding trade.

Franck didn't talk to us about the drug addiction that he recently managed to rid himself of. " The children we take in are often extremely wild, " says the director. " What they believe in is violence, tribalism and ideology. When they come to us, sometimes they don't have a scrap of clothing on them – as if they had just been born. They have to start over from zero, from the absolute basics of living in society. " Sometimes, says the director, fights break out in the centre between demobilized members of rival groups. The challenge is to help them rebuild their identity. " My greatest fear is that once they're back home they will be recruited again by the groups or that they'll decide on their own initiative to return to the forest. "

When we leave the director's office, a tall youth approaches us. " The others are going home, but what about us, the kids from Kalehe? Why do you hate us? " Tracing delegate Manuela Schild speaks to him reassuringly: " You know that we've contacted your parents. It won't be long before you too will be going home. Don't worry. "