Giving Congo's child soldiers a second chance


Amid reports of militias beginning to remobilise, there are fears for DR Congo and its children

SLEEP DOES not come easy for Bonnaire, a 19-year-old with the face of a much older man. Sometimes he wakes in the middle of the night, shaking and sweating from another bad dream.

“I see the faces of the people I killed and I hear them crying,” he says in a low voice. “It feels like I can never escape them.”

Bonnaire was 13 when he joined a group of Mai Mai, the name given to loosely connected militias in eastern Congo distinguished by their superstitious practices, including the belief that dousing themselves in special potions protects them from bullets.

He volunteered, he says, because he wanted to ensure his village was not attacked. The teenager spent several years fighting in the bush before he was rescued from the clutches of the Mai Mai as part of demobilisation efforts.

Now he is training to become a mechanic at the Toumaini centre in Goma.

More than 900 former child combatants have learned skills, including carpentry and metal work, at the facility since it opened in 2003, according to its director Pascal Badibanga.

“These young men face so many problems in terms of integrating back into society,” he says. “Many continue with the habits they formed in the militias – they steal, they fight and they take drugs.

“Some can be really aggressive. Much of this springs from the fact they have witnessed and done terrible things. They have killed, raped and looted and they have enormous difficulties coming to terms with this.

“If these youth are not taken care of properly, they can become a serious threat for the whole community.”

Bonnaire’s story is typical of thousands of others. More than five million people died in the war that convulsed Congo for much of his lifetime, pulling in armies from half a dozen neighbouring countries.

The war may be officially over but its tremors continue to be felt in the myriad local conflicts it spawned in the country’s troubled eastern pocket.

Some 30,000 child soldiers have been demobilised since 1999, but the UN estimates that thousands are still being used as combatants, scouts, porters and “bush wives” or sex slaves by a constellation of armed groups. About a third of those recruited are girls, some as young as 10 years.

Of those who escape, many end up rejoining voluntarily or are taken back by force. Poverty drives them back, as does a sense of isolation from their families and the wider community. Very often the former fighters are ostracised or viewed as potentially dangerous.

Programmes such as those offered at the Toumaini Centre can only cater for a tiny percentage, and even those lucky to get training cannot be sure they will be able to eke out a living in what the UN last year designated the world’s least developed nation.

“The biggest challenge is that opportunities for these children and teenagers are very limited in the villages,” says Pascal Badibanga. “As a result, there is huge temptation to return to the militias.”

Bonnaire says he can understand why many rejoin. “Sometimes I think about going back myself, especially when I have no money and I wonder what kind of future I can have,” he explains.

“I remember how easy life was in the Mai Mai, we would just steal whatever we wanted. I have to fight these feelings, it’s a real struggle.”

Henri Ladyi, director of the conflict resolution centre based in North Kivu, believes the region is doomed to repeat its bloody history if more is not done to reintegrate former combatants. The centre has set up task forces comprising former militiamen, army personnel and community leaders.

Working across some of the worst-affected areas, they encourage armed groups to return to civilian life.

In 2010, the centre persuaded more than 1,000 adult fighters to disarm and it secured the release of more than 400 child soldiers. They also trained 2,600 children to resist recruitment by militias.

“In order to successfully reintegrate youth ex-combatants, the DDRR [disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration] programme here in the Democratic Republic of Congo needs to address the socio-economic conditions that contributed to the emergence of the conflict, among them the lack of economic and educational opportunities,” Ladyi says.

“Only a fraction of disarmed ex- combatants have enrolled in reintegration programmes or found employment.”

Ladyi fears that years of painstaking work is being undone amid reports that militias are beginning to reform and remobilise in the vastness of eastern Congo.

“We are worried that all these efforts for peace, stability and security will be reduced to zero,” he says. “The Democratic Republic of Congo passed through a long moment of war and the risk is that we will see a return to that.”