Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Child soldiers: Ex-Child Soldiers in DRC Drawn Back Into Military Ranks

Youngsters struggling to adapt to civilian life feel they have little option but to return to fighting.

A lack of community support and persistent discrimination is being blamed for the re-recruitment of former child soldiers by the army and militias in Masisi territory, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

Former child soldiers are being especially targeted in Kitchanga, 80 kilometres north-west of Goma. The town used to be a stronghold of the National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP, a rebel group which has now been officially integrated into the armed forces.

Observers say that a factor behind this phenomenon is the frustration that many former CNDP soldiers feel about the ranks they have been offered as part of their incorporation into the national army.

Since January 2009, when the national army signed a peace deal with the CNDP, former rebel soldiers have been offered positions within the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, FARDC, the national army – but often at a lower rank than they enjoyed previously.

The government argues that such downgrading of rank is justified on the grounds that many of the original military grades were obtained without any formal training.

Former rebel commanders who feel their authority has been reduced are said to be re-recruited child soldiers as a way of boosting their influence within army units and as a means of protecting themselves in the event of the peace process unravelling.

“It is likely that former CNDP commanders inside the FARDC continue to recruit child soldiers into their own units in order to strengthen their position in case there is a return to conflict,” said Isabelle Guitard, a researcher with the NGO Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

Militia units are also keen to get their hands on former child combatants because of their previous fighting experience.

The national army as well as other armed groups have a long history of using child soldiers in DRC's various wars. Thanks to international efforts in the past few years, thousands of child soldiers have been demobilised and reintegrated into the community.

But according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, as many as 7,000 children may still be serving in the national army and militia groups.

Those that have managed to leave face discrimination from their family and friends, which makes it easier for army and militia commanders to re-recruit them.

“Our parents see us as barbarians and thieves,” Kalondji, one former child soldier who now lives in Goma, said.

Kahindo Alphonsine, the mother of a former child soldier from Mabanga in south Goma, explained how difficult it is for children who have been used to fighting to readjust to civilian life.

“Since my child left the army, he doesn’t listen to anything,” she said. “He became an alcoholic. He doesn’t want to work. He goes out every morning in good shape but always comes back drunk. I did everything for him but he doesn’t want to change. I gave him money to start a fishing business in Vitchumbi, but he drank all the money away.”

Mwisha Kitsa, a local trader who owns a clothes shop in the centre of Goma, told IWPR that many people in the community view child soldiers with distrust.

“These children are normal children when they are still in the family, but after serving in the army they have a very different and strange behaviour when they come back,” he said. “I consider them like Maibobo (street children): dangerous, bandits. I do not trust them, and I cannot hire them since they could run away with my belongings.”

He concluded by referring to a Swahili saying, “If a domestic chicken goes into the forest, it becomes immediately wild.”

For their part, children who have served as soldiers say that they often feel abandoned and neglected when they cease to be part of the military life that they have grown accustomed to.

“I live with my family, but they do not trust me. They treat me as if I was a barbarian. But it’s not just my family. People do not trust us because they regard children who entered the army to be undisciplined people,” Kalondji said.

“Sometimes, when I go out to look for a job, people tell me that they cannot hire a former soldier since we are thieves. Instead of suffering like this, among civilians, I prefer to be back in the army.”

Kalondij says that while he was serving as a child soldier, he was shot and wounded in the leg, which makes it even more difficult for him to find employment and survive on his own.

To prevent child soldiers rejoining military groups, orientation and transit centres have been set up to provide support to those that are having difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

Ndikumani Celestin, who runs one such centre in Goma, spoke about the importance of rehabilitating child soldiers.

"Our centre is a transit point for preparing the return of these children to their respective families,” he said. “It is a counselling centre that helps them adapt to the conditions of daily life. We are trying to make them understand that the army is not their place and how they should behave when they are with their families.”

Celestin says that a child usually stays with the centre for between two days and three months, before being returned to the community, depending on their particular situation.

But he admitted that sometimes, in cases where former child soldiers’ safety could be threatened if they went home, the duration of the stay can be even longer.

“Sometimes, children might stay a year or a year-and-a-half, and that's where we have a problem,” he said.

Children who are forced to stay in the centre for extended periods of time say they are frustrated that they can’t start building a future for themselves.

Adellard Kasereka, who comes from Kibirizi, some 200 km north of Goma, says he was forced to fight in a Mai Mai militia group. When he was decommissioned in 2009, the United Nations mission in DRC, MONUSCO, brought him to Goma.

“I have been in the centre since 2009, but I’d rather go back to my village where I can farm,” he said. “Here, I only eat and do the laundry and learn the Ntore dance (a traditional Rwandan dance). We are like prisoners. Why are we locked in here at the centre? I want to be sent back to Kibirizi.”

Erick Nzaisenga, from neighbouring Burundi, takes a similar view. He fought for the CNDP in Katale, 100 km outside of Goma, before being brought, with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, to the Goma transit centre.

“I found out that many of my relatives had died,” he said. “I have no family in Goma. The ICRC says they will send me back to Burundi, where I still have a brother, but I don’t know when that will happen. We learn how to behave once we’re back in our families and how to dance and how to draw. I do not want to go back to the army since I did not like it, but I suffer here. I want to go home and to see my family again.”

Observers say that the reintegration of former child soldiers is fundamental to keeping them out of the military and, for its part, the Congolese military claims to be taking the question of child soldiers seriously.

Lieutenant Gratien Nshagali, from the 8th Military Region in Goma, who is in charge of demobilisation and reintegration, recognises that there is still a problem, particularly in areas outside the city.

Nshagali said the enlistment of child soldiers started again when ex-militiamen absorbed into the army found that the ranks they had previously held were downgraded.

“[They] felt dissatisfied, and expressed this by recruiting child soldiers. This situation is getting more and more complicated. Even though people are concerned, they don’t know what to do. Children are used as if they were puppets because they are so vulnerable,” he said.

Muhima, who is in charge of morale and discipline within the 8th Military Region, says that the military is stepping up efforts to curb the use of child soldiers in the army.

“Since the situation of child soldiers and their reintegration is becoming more visible, mechanisms to eradicate this practice of using children are being examined,” he said.

Erick Kenzo is an IWPR-trained journalist.