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"I was a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo"

18 Jun 2015


The ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has left 3 million people internally displaced. Credit: OCHA/Imane Cherif
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In November 2012, Olivier*, 12 years old, was abducted by armed men while working in the family’s field. He spent two years as a Mayi-Mayi child soldier.

One early morning in November 2012, Olivier*, who had just turned 12 years old, was abducted by armed men while working in the family’s field.  The armed men worked swiftly, taking away the boy without a noise. Olivier went on to spend two years as a Mayi-Mayi child soldier.

Olivier was abducted in Kamkanga, a small village near the northern town of Pweto in DRC’s Katanga province.  The captors belonged to the Mayi-Mayi Bakata Katanga armed group, a notorious group that has used terror tactics, abducted people and looted villages in northern Katanga over the last 5 years. Their goal is to break up Katanga from the rest of DRC – “Bataka Katanga” meaning to cut up Katanga. The group abducted dozens of other children, including girls, on that same day.

“Lifein the forest was not easy. You had to be strong and have a goal in mind to survive,” said Olivier. “…We slept on the ground. We had to loot villages to eat. We were drugged to remain obedient.  We were forced to kill. When I was in the armed group, I committed violence and crimes,” he told OCHA.

“I lost my childhood, my friends and my mother.”

One morning while the soldiers of the Congolese army were patrolling the area, Oliver managed to run up to them, and tell them he had been kidnapped. They enabled him to escape. He will be placed in a transit center in Lubumbashi, Katanga’s capital, far from Pweto, where he has been active.

From 2012 to now,just under 1,500 children, aged between 7 and 17, have been reunited with their families, according to UNICEF Lubumbashi. This is the result ofdiscrete, sustained lobbyingbetween protection experts and the warlords, as well as the actions run by FARDC in the Katanga area.

“They become children again”

Once released children stay in a transition and orientation center (CTO) for three monthswhere social workers try to “reprogramme” them into civilian life and to start to give them back their youth. During that period, the children are given psychosocial support; they attend awareness sessions on child rights and peaceful coexistence, as well as literacy courses and training in income-generating activities. These services are rolled out by UNICEF and a handful of national NGOs, such as Friends of Persons in Distress (APEDE) and RECONFORT.

“At first, upon arriving, many of them [the children] show little respect for anything, they are violent and feel isolated. With time, they become children again,” said Silva Kabuya, programme manager of APEDE, the NGO that runs the Lubumbashi CTO.

Olivier told OCHA: "I had to learn to change the way I see the world. I had to re-learn to respect my neighbors, to share. I had to learn a trade, to read and write. I feel safe here. After years in the bush, I finally feel at home in the house, even if it is not my real family.” Olivier is in the process of being reunified with his family. Now 15 years old, he dreams of becoming a journalist.

UNICEF estimates that more than 1,500, children are still held captive by armed groups in Katanga.

Between 2013 and 2014, more than US$3 million was allocated to demobilize, rehabilitate and reintegrate children who had been abducted by armed forces in Katanga. The funding was used to establish 12 OTC centers, to train 47 host families to accommodate the children pre-reunification with their families, and many other child protection-oriented activities.

But reintegrating these children into civilian life is just one step:  long-term monitoring must take place to make sure children are able to survive and thrive. "Once the children are back in the community, community members may sometimes be afraid of these former child soldiers because they held weapons and killed. They are often viewed with suspicion,” Kabuya said. “Faced with community rejection, the thought of a return to the bush can quickly arise in some rebellious or impatient children.”

Monitoring needs to take into account all of the steps they will face: returning to school, setting up community-building activities, reunifying with their families, building community acceptance and reconstructing social ties.

*His name has been changed for protection purposes. While Olivier was recruited to fight, children are also recruited into armed groups to act as scouts, cooks, porters and sexual slaves.