December 12, 2003
Ernest and Bossa were not yet teenagers when war broke out in 1998 in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the war spread across eastern DRC like a brush fire. People fled their homes, leaving everything behind, as raiders attacked their villages. Some would go back, only to be forced to leave once again at the next attack. Tired of life on the run, Bossa (16) eventually joined the Union des Patriotes congolais (UPC), a militia dominated by the Hema ethnic group and related communities such as the Gegere, to which he belongs. On the other side of the ethnic divide, 15-year-old Ernest threw in his lot with the Front des Nationalistes et Integrationnistes (FNI), a militia comprising the Lendu and allied peoples such as his community, the Ngiti.
Bossa and Ernest were by no means exceptions. The DRC is one of the countries with the largest number of child soldiers, Amnesty International said in a report issued in September 2003, based on research done in Kinshasa, the capital, and the eastern locations of Beni, Bukavu, Goma and Uvira. An official of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated in September 2003 that there might be up to 15,000 children in the various armed groups in the east of the country. The government has put the figure at about 30,000. Some of the combatants were as young as eight years old.
Amnesty said in its report, titled 'Democratic Republic of Congo: Children at War' and available online at http://www.web.amnesty.org/library, that "recruitment drives are almost continuous and forcible conscription has been prevalent throughout DRC since 1996". However, it said voluntary enlistment was also widespread, with some children joining armed groups so as to survive when family, social and economic structures collapsed.
Both Ernest and Bossa were volunteers. Bossa said he was trained by the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF), the Ugandan national army, before joining the UPC. "I went for training with the UPDF because I was frustrated, I had seen too much suffering, and we kept running whenever there was a raid. I then decided enough was enough and joined up," he said. He was proud of his service in the UPC. "First I was a fighter, then I became a troop leader. In fact, I rose to the rank of sergeant," he said. "I was drunk most of the time," he added. "I don't remember how many people I killed but I know they are many." Ernest, on the other hand, had no particular reason for enlisting in the FNI. "I just wanted to join the militia," he said. "Kisirani tu," [â€˜just strong headedness' in the Kiswahili language] he added. FNI militia fighters received no salaries, so they simply paid themselves by looting raided villages, he told IRIN.
War broke out in the DRC in 1998 when Uganda and Rwanda sent troops to back rebels bent on toppling President Laurent Kabila. Kabila remained head of state with the aid of Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe until he was assassinated in January 2001. His son, Joseph, then assumed the presidency. At its peak, the Congo conflict involved troops from these countries, Congolese rebel groups such as the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Goma) - which later split into three with the formation of the RCD-ML-Kisangani and the RCD-National – several local militia groups and Congolese government forces.
Most of the foreign troops left the country by December 2002, but fighting between militias continued in the east and northeast, a region rich in minerals such as diamonds, gold and coltan as well as timber from the rainforests of Ituri District. In June 2003, former rebel movements joined a two-year transitional government led by Kabila. Since then, fighting has subsided in many parts of the country. However, the main militia groups in Ituri were not incorporated into the government and sporadic fighting has continued in the district, despite ongoing prevention, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (PDDR) efforts.
The Special Representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the DRC, William Swing, said in Bunia on 1 September that years of war in Ituri had killed 50,000 people and displaced 500,000. Most of the internally displaced people in camps in Bunia, the main town in Ituri, were children and women. Minors continue to serve in rival militias in the area. NGO officials in Bunia said the exact number of children in the UPC and FNI could not be established as verifying information from the militias was difficult.
In the meantime, UN agencies and NGOs have been trying to help children caught up in conflict in the DRC. UNICEF, for example, has been working with other groups to ensure that children removed from conflict situations are disarmed, demobilised and reintegrated into society. A conference held by UNICEF in mid-2003 in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, came up with a proposed PDDR programme for children who were involved in the conflict, UNICEF child protection officer in eastern DRC, Njanja Fassu, told IRIN. After the meeting - attended by representatives of NGOs, UN agencies, government and armed groups – the various actors returned to their areas of operation, where they started implementing the programme while waiting for the transitional government in Kinshasa to endorse it and make it into law, Fassu said.
Save the Children-UK (SCUK) and Caritas, a Roman Catholic NGO, have been involved in the protection, demobilisation and reintegration of former child soldiers in Ituri. As at 3 September, there were 32 former child combatants at a transit camp in Bunia managed by Save the Children and 46 others in a camp managed by Caritas. Jean-Francois Basse, child protection adviser at the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC – French acronym), told IRIN MONUC was involved in a programme, in collaboration with other UN agencies, local and international NGOs, aimed at assisting children who had been involved in armed conflict.
SCUK's project manager in Bunia, Antoine Kassigondo Ntabe, said the NGO started its operations in the town in 2000. At the time, there were many armed groups in Ituri District - both foreign and local - all of which had child soldiers. Kassigondo said there were reports of some 6,000 to 7,000 children in armed groups in Ituri in 2000. He said SCUK worked with local bodies such as church groups, women's associations and teachers to disseminate information on the need to remove children from armed groups and to keep them from joining militias. "We use these organisations to sensitise the population on the harm caused to children who take part in armed conflict, and we tell the people to urge the combatants to stop using child soldiers," Kassigondo said.
SCUK has also been teaching local communities about children's rights, and human rights in general, so that they can lobby militia leaders to release their child soldiers. In February 2003, it provided training in children's rights for 12 UPC officers in Bunia. The participants said they had a total of about 2,000 minors in their units, but did not know the exact number in the entire militia group. Estimates then were that the militia group had between 4,000 and 6,000 child soldiers.
In April 2003, Save the Children was able to secure the release of 29 under-age combatants by the UPDF, which had been deployed in Bunia to secure the town. Soon after, the NGO failed in a bid to obtain the release of 60 more UPC child soldiers detained in Bunia by the UPDF. Some of the children later arrived at various transit camps. The French-led International Multinational Force, codenamed Artemis, which replaced the Ugandans in Bunia between June and September 2003, also handed over detained child soldiers – at least 10 of them - to the SCUK, Kassigondo said.
Save the Children has also been involved in efforts to reunite former child soldiers and unaccompanied children with their families. In 2003, it has been help in the reunification of at least 900 children, some of them from as far away as Kasese in Uganda. The reintegration of former child soldiers into the society is not automatic; they are sometimes rejected, so SCUK has been appealing to churches, teachers, women's groups and youth groups to urge the rest of the community to accept them. "We sensitise them on the need to accept that these are still children and we encourage those children who are still of school-going age to return to school wherever possible," he said. Those who do not want to go back to school are encouraged to learn trades such as fishing or farming.
Save the Children assists groups involved in vocational training by providing equipment – from nets to hair dressing equipment for training future barbers. Kassigondo said that MONUC, for its part, has been helping to provide children with essential services such as water.
One of the major concerns of humanitarian groups was how to remove the remaining children from armed groups. Another was accommodation, according to Father Etienne Ndeykos, head of Caritas in Bunia. Caritas, for example, had limited capacity to deal with the number of children seeking DDR at the transit centre it runs in Bunia, Fr. Ndyekos said. This recently forced it to turn away 13 children who wanted to register at the centre.
Fr Ndyekos said that, as at September 2003, Caritas had managed to keep all the children in its camp from rejoining the armed groups. It was also working with other NGOs and UN agencies such as MONUC and UNICEF on the children's reintegration into society.
Yet another main challenge faced by caregivers is correcting the psychological damage caused by the war. Caritas has been involved in programmes to demilitarize them, to remove from their minds the notion that they are military, said Father Ndeykos said. "They are just children," he added. Ndyekos said Caritas was working on how to get the younger children back to school and provide the older ones with vocational skills.
In the meantime, some of the former child combatants still see bearing arms as part of their future. Bossa and Ernest, for example, are clear on what their plans are. "I was in class seven before joining FNI, now I would like to go to Kinshasa and continue my studies, after which I could like to join the army," Ernest said. Bossa, who left school at Form Two to join the UPC, hopes to resume his studies and then join the army as a cadet. "That way I will be an officer!" he said.
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