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DR Congo: invisible wounds and local paths to recovery

10-10-2012 Feature

On the occasion of World Mental Health Day (10 October), the ICRC looks at the plight of children and youth forcibly recruited by armed groups the psychosocial support provided by local actors to lighten their heavy load after they return home. Their stories are told in images from two villages in Ango Territory, Orientale province, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The main road in Dakwa, Ango

Dakwa and Banda are two villages in north-eastern DRC, an area racked since 2009 by violence linked to the presence of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and military operations launched to contain them. The images capture the pain of children and youth forcibly recruited by an armed group and the steps taken by local actors to lighten their heavy load after they return home. The ICRC has been working closely with these communities, training Red Cross volunteers, host families, teachers and spiritual leaders to improve their psychosocial support for children on the path to recovery. In the story that follows, children formerly associated with an armed group, community members, ICRC staff and Red Cross volunteers share their experiences and observations on the children's invisible psychological wounds which, untreated, can continue to cripple their future.

The inhabitants of communities like Dakwa and Banda, beautiful and quaint villages situated in the territory of Ango, are some of the primary victims of the violence which has plagued the area these past few years, and which reached a peak in 2009. Though the levels of violence have diminished in recent times, sporadic incidents continue to occur, leaving the communities in constant fear of further attacks and lootings.


Children playing football in the centre of Dakwa village

Invisible wounds run deep

"When you take the children, you destroy the family unit and corrode the fabric of society," says Kevin Davies, who runs the ICRC's psychosocial programme in Orientale province. "Children in villages like Dakwa or Banda may be taken from very young ages, such as four or five years old, just as they might be 14 or 15. They may be held by an armed group for different periods of time, ranging from a few days, a few weeks, to a few years. What they witness, what they experience and what they are made to do can be atrocious, and this leaves an imprint on a child's mind and behaviour."

Children are used as porters, wives, or for different forms of forced labour, while others are forced to fight. Some children never return, while others manage to escape and survive the long journey home. Their psychological, more invisible, wounds are usually the hardest to heal.

Striving to forget 

I was with them for seven months before I got away… But then I had to wait a month in Banda before being reunited with my family [in Dakwa]. People there would ask me questions like "did you kill people?", or "were you made to become a sex slave?" This would bring back bad memories, and I would just look away and say
nothing,"  Marie*

"Reactions are of course very different and individual," says Davies. "Some of the children who have escaped may be very sensitive to noise, reacting angrily to the shouts of others. Some complain of constant fatigue and appear to be less involved in the day-to-day activities of village life. They say they are tired because of the heavy loads they were made to carry through the rugged and harsh terrain that covers much of the province. So they sit, play draughts (checkers), and attempt to avoid, to forget."

Living with the burden

Back home, former child soldiers also struggle with the reactions of others and the stigma of being associated with an armed group. Along with the emotional and psychological difficulties they face, they are often feared, rejected or bullied. 

"If people have lost one of their family members in the fighting, they might call you "tongo tongo" [LRA in the local dialect] and say you are responsible. This can be hard."

Hope for the future: education

Jonathan* was taken by an armed group during a raid on his village in 2009, when he was about 15. He spent a year in the forest, during which time he was forced to fight. He and a dozen other children managed to escape during a surprise attack by the Congolese Government Army (FARDC).

"Life was very difficult in the 'brousse'. I was forced to do certain things. When I came home, I didn't have to anymore... I have two older brothers, and they help me a lot. But the best thing was when I started school again. I lost a year but I don't want to be penalized as a result. I want to catch up and keep studying."

But Jonathan's family cannot afford to pay for his school fees and books, and organizations only have educational grants for younger children. Like Jonathan, many children who've returned from an armed group are too old to qualify. After having lost part of their youth in the "forest", it can make them feel like there is nothing to come back to.  

 Survival is a great achievement 

"Helping a child understand what happened to them, and how and why they are feeling a certain way, is very important. Aside from listening, the ICRC taught us some 'normalization techniques'. For instance, children often do not realize that their very survival is a great achievement. We remind them of this, how they managed to survive the wild on their own and get home. We try to restore their hope, and show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel," says Léocadie, one of two counsellors recruited and trained by the ICRC's
psychosocial team. Léocadie and her counterpart Ferdinand are currently providing counselling to 30-odd children and families in Dakwa and neighbouring villages.

 Temporary host families

Naomi (pictured, on the right, in green) and her husband became a "temporary host family" for former child soldiers after the Red Cross told them of a young girl who had escaped from an armed group who was staying at the military camp. The Red Cross had not yet been able to locate her parents. Naomi's husband went to find the child and offered her a temporary home: She would not eat, she cried ll the time and otherwise she would sleep a lot. She had wounds on different parts of her body, and her neck would ache because she had been carrying very heavy loads over long distances for so long." Naomi has since welcomed many children, but insists that temporary host families must be selected carefully and be made aware of children's emotional and psychological needs. This is key to helping the child rediscover who they were before and "welcome" them back.  

What the children leave behind

 "As you are alone now, your two children have been taken, I leave you my daughter, so that she can help and be with you. When you feel better, when you see that you will be alright, then you can bring her back to me." Pastor Sampson, who lives in and is originally from Banda, actively participated in the ICRC's psychosocial courses and workshops, and leads weekly music groups with children formerly associated with armed groups. He indicates it is not only the children that live with these invisible wounds. Countless parents have to endure the loss of children who may never return. Two months ago, he found himself so moved by the distress of a mother whose only two children had just been abducted in a night raid that he "gave" one of his daughters to comfort her and keep her company.   


Sami (pictured on the right), a volunteer for the Red Cross' family reunification team in Banda, prepares families of former child soldiers on what to expect when they return home. He explains the different types of emotional and psychological reactions former child soldiers may have, and how these are completely normal in light of what they have gone through. As misunderstandings between parents and these children are common, follow-up and mentoring are very important aspects of this work.

Facilitation is central to ICRC approach

The key idea behind the ICRC's community approach to psychosocial care is facilitation. Its teams may facilitate trainings and solution-focused discussion groups, but ultimately it is a bottom-up process. Davies' explains further: "We believe that the solutions are inside the person, inside the community, and the best and most powerful way to reach a solution is for them to find it themselves. The journey to recovery involves different stages, from feelings of loss, denial, anger, blame to, finally, acceptance. Each person follows their own unique recovery process and moves at their own pace. The community can do a lot to assist in this. We want to help these children and communities to make this journey together, so that it is faster and less painful. Ultimately, hope and compassion are key elements in any recovery process, be it mental or physical illness. These are some of the attitudes that we try to foster."


An adolescent and his young sibling, walking in Dakwa, a seemingly quaint and peaceful village.


Since September 2011, the ICRC's psychosocial team has trained over 150 Congolese Red Cross volunteers, teachers, and religious and spiritual leaders in the villages of Doruma, Banda and Dakwa, to better understand psychological and emotional symptoms and integrate this kind of care into their normal work. Two counsellors from each community were also trained to provide more specialized support. After the successes of this work in creating more "fertile" ground for children's recovery, the ICRC plans to launch similar programmes in other villages.

 * The names of children associated with armed forces or groups have been changed

Photos: © ICRC / K. Armstrong