Rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its neighboring regions continue to trigger disruption, despite the signing of a UN-backed Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework by 11 African countries in February.
The ongoing violence in the east and north-east of the DRC has resulted in the displacement of more than 2.2 million people since 2012. But thousands of people in conflict areas have no choice but to stay. Among them are the peace building organisations and the ex-child soldiers who are in the process of being reintegrated into the community.
Last August, the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of Congo (MONUSCO) expressed "deep concern" over 150 documented incidents of child recruitment by the M23, the Mai Mai groups, the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) since the beginning of 2012.
UNICEF estimates that 4500 children serve in militias across the Democratic Republic of Congo, while at least 1700 child soldiers are active in North Kivu alone. Children are forcibly conscripted into insurgent forces and government militias, abducted at gunpoint from villages, markets, schools and foster homes. Poverty and hunger drives some parents to willingly surrender their child to armed groups, or force their child to volunteer as a way to guarantee regular meals and medical attention. Some become soldiers to protect their families from rogue forces or to avenge the deaths of loved ones, while others are lured in by the promise of wealth, power and an end to hunger.
Henri Bura Ladyi, dubbed “Africa’s Schindler” by The Independent, has worked on rehabilitating child soldiers for 10 years as the director of the Congolese church-based organisation Centre Résolution Conflits (CRC).
“The fighting between militia groups and the national army is like a cycle,” Ladyi told New Matilda via Skype. “And every time, children are victims of this.”
Floribert Kazingufu, the founder of the Chirezi Fondation, starts a process known as “DDR” (demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration) by contacting the child’s family, local authorities and army officials in the child’s community to gain their support in negotiating the liberation of children from the rebel groups.
“Sometimes we are taken between two fires: the government army, and armed groups,” Kazingufu told New Matilda via Skype. “This is why it is important to have friendship with both groups. Without building trust, this process is very dangerous.”
Because of the importance of children to the militia, negotiating for their release is no easy task. Ladyi once persuaded a rebel army leader to free 100 children in exchange for 25 goats.
But other peace builders refrain from supplying means to rebel groups altogether. “What they do is illegal, so we don’t give them anything,” Mumbere Kiserivwa Kizito, who is the coordinator of Passion for Souls Mission in DRC (PSM/DRC) told NM in a Skype interview.
When the rebel army leaders agree to discharge the children, groups such as the Mai Mai perform rituals to permanently sever the children’s ties to the group and cleanse them of the acts they committed under the rebels’ control. The end of this ceremony marks the beginning of the children’s new lives.
Former children are found in such destitute states that it can be disheartening for peace builders. Ashamed of having been used as pawns to harm others, the children often “hide within themselves,” Kiserviwa said.
“We don’t pay attention to their condition,” Ladyi points out. We just know that they are children, under eighteen years old … we need to take care of them. We need to bring them to the good condition of life. We need to make them really become children.”
There are three phases of action for the children’s societal reintegration. The first is to try to reconcile children with their families. This can be a gruelling charge for peace building organisations—there is no guarantee that a child’s family can be located. Sometimes, children return to their villages only to find that the place they once called home had been completely deserted, or to hear of their parents’ death at the hands of rebel forces.
On the rare occasion that they are reunited with their parents, a number of difficulties may arise. Peace builders often have to resolve conflicts which are, in most cases, rooted in the parents’ mistrust of their children.
“Some parents can say: 'No, no, we cannot accept the child because he took our bikes, he sold this. We are … obliged to pay these back.' It can be a bike, a goat, a cow. Anything related belonging to family, belonging to the parents,” Ladyi explained.
The second stage is to work towards a child’s psychological and social wellbeing. “This is to help him to be able to think about new things, and not think about what happened when he was active in the bush,” Ladyi said. The third and final step is the development of a means by which children can financially sustain themselves in the future so they can fully steer clear of violent livelihoods.
The struggles children face in their reintegration are pervasive—at home, in their community, and in school. There are no special education centres for former child soldiers. The rebel groups set schools on fire, destroy peace-building organisations’ campsites, terrorise communities and massacre children. Their actions are fuelled by resentment of former child soldiers’ progress, Ladyi explained.
Members of the M23 meet local chiefs and demand that they identify and handover ex-child soldiers who had escaped their group, according to “worrying reports” that MONUSCO continues to receive.
Some children who have lived in the village their whole lives are comfortable with ex-child soldiers in the community. But Ladyi says the problem is when discrimination starts.
“This is what is creating the cycle. You can see those children return to the bush because they were stigmatised. They are victims of being treated badly by other children,” he said.
Former child soldiers who have successfully been reintegrated into the community also offer their support to younger boys and girls who are in the process of rehabilitation. The reason why only three months is allotted to the reintegration program is for the lack of time and the enormous amount of children still serving in the rebel forces.
“Every two-three weeks,” Lady explained, “we can find another 20-30 children again. We need time to deal with the new children.” The complete process of societal reintegration can take up to five years.
Amid these obstacles, one that proves to be the most challenging is the organisations’ lack of funds and adequate resources. They are short of finances for recreational materials, clinics, the salaries of teachers and specialised counselors, transit centres and reintegration centres.
“Without that, sometimes we do the work but at the end of the day, when the children don’t have something to do to enable them to live, they finish the program just to go back to the armed groups again,” said Kazingufu.
There is much work to be done but successes aren't unknown. Former child soldiers have walked into Ladyi’s office asking for job references; he has also been invited to their weddings. Ladyi once visited a village where many reintegrated children lived and saw that 30 per cent of the houses had been built by ex-combatants.
“This is an indicator that reintegration is positive,” he said.
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