Demobbed Child Soldiers Struggle to Adjust to Civilian Life

Some are reluctant to return home because they fear falling victim to revenge attacks.

Demobbed Child Soldiers Struggle to Adjust to Civilian Life

Some are reluctant to return home because they fear falling victim to revenge attacks.

Many children are among the militiamen being demobilised in Congo’s North Kivu province, putting a strain on agencies trying to reintegrate them into their former communities.

The demobilisation in the east of the country is gathering pace as a tentative peace deal agreed last month shows signs of holding.

Rebel chief and International Criminal Court, ICC, fugitive Bosco Ntaganda agreed in January to end the fighting that has created a humanitarian emergency in the east and said he would integrate his CNDP troops into the national army. Other rebel groups followed suit and have been emerging from the forest to join Congo’s army.

More than 430 fighters, including 20 children, were recently demobbed at a stadium in Nyanzale, 100 kilometres west of Goma in Rutshuru territory. Most were dressed in civilian clothes and a few were carrying weapons.

“We were in the jungle and heard that we should now be under the command of the president of [Congo],” said Boniface Bafakururimi, a colonel in the Mongol Mai Mai group. “We also heard the CNDP, the PARECO and other Mai Mai armed groups had left the jungle. That is the reason why we also decided to leave the forest.”

The adults will be incorporated into Congo’s army, but Rutshuru district commander Colonel Smith Gihanga told the children at Nyanzale that they would have to be demobilised.

“We cannot integrate children, because our country signed a convention on the rights of children,” Gihanga said.

A spokesperson for the United Nations Mission in the DRC, known by its French acronym MONUC, said that the child soldiers would be taken by its child protection section and given to the UN children’s agency UNICEF and other agencies to begin their reintegration into civilian life.

“Anywhere armed groups are gathering … our teams are present to separate children from other combatants,” said Sylvie van den Wildenberg, the MONUC spokeswoman in North Kivu, adding 315 have been demobilised in recent days.

The aid agency Caritas told IWPR that this has been the largest demobilisation in recent years. “The warlords have no more interest in keeping them. That is the reason why they are getting them out of the jungle and presenting them publicly,” said Juvenal Munubo Mubi who works on a Caritas child soldier demobilisation and reintegration project.

“One challenge today is that there are so many children who are separated from armed groups but there are fewer infrastructures to welcome them.”

The children spend several weeks in a transit and orientation centre where they are taught to readjust to civilian life.

“When they come from the armed groups, they consider any civilian as inferior. At this stage, it is difficult to send them home directly. We have to teach them how to live in the community,” said a staff member at a Goma-based transit centre.

Helping to prepare families and communities is also part of the process of reintegration. Counselors from the centres visit the children’s families and their villages before they are taken home. “We have to make sure that the community is ready to welcome them,” Munubo Mubi said. He also encourages the children to return to school or take vocational training.

In reality, reintegration is often hugely difficult, particularly for the children who have committed crimes in the villages of North Kivu.

“I’m afraid to go back home. I could be killed by the members of the local community,” said a 20-year-old former child soldier who doesn’t want to leave the Goma transit centre.

He said he shot and killed a child during an incident at a school and was involved in the killings of 10 people in the village of Karuba, about 50 km from Goma. “[They] were hiding themselves in the bush. My friends and I shot them. They died,” he said.

Often unwelcome back home, the children who’ve fought in North Kivu’s bitter conflicts are then easy targets for any armed groups trying to re-recruit those for whom civilian life doesn’t work out.

Several youngsters interviewed by IWPR say they prefer a military life.

“I would like to continue working in the army, but as the authorities have decided to demobilise us, I have to leave the army,” said Habamugisha, a 15-year-old holding a gun.

Some children like Sore pretend to be 18 so they will be accepted by the armed forces.

“I’m going to continue serving my country in the army. I like the army, because I have to fight to protect our country,” he said.

Crimes against Congolese children feature in the ICC’s first-ever case. Militia leader Thomas Lubanga is currently on trial in The Hague on charges of conscripting children to fight in the Bunia conflict.

Jacques Kahorha is an IWPR reporter in Goma.
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