Drug Addiction Hinders Child Soldier Reintegration

War-torn society struggles to deal with drug problem among demobilised youths.

Drug Addiction Hinders Child Soldier Reintegration

War-torn society struggles to deal with drug problem among demobilised youths.

Tuesday, 26 January, 2010
Efforts to rebuild society in the war-ravaged east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, are being hampered by the problem of drug abuse among former child soldiers, many of whom are struggling to readjust to civilian life, according to experts working in the region.

“Large numbers of youth are affected [by drug addiction], especially child soldiers and street children,” said Richard Amani, who works for a local NGO, the Programme to Fight Extreme Poverty and Misery, known by its French acronym PAMI. “Child soldiers are drugged by militia leaders. They become violent and addicted, and their reintegration into society becomes difficult.”

A programme co-ordinator for an international NGO working in the region – who declined to be named – said that as many as 95 per cent of children used in armed conflicts are introduced to drugs, most commonly marijuana, although khat, a stimulant, is also used.

The issue of drug use among child soldiers has surfaced in the International Criminal Court, ICC, trial of Thomas Lubanga, the former president of the Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC, who faces charges of recruiting, conscripting and using child soldiers during the 2002-2003 conflict in the east of the country.

On January 17, a former child soldier, giving testimony anonymously, said that he had been “drunk and had smoked cannabis” during a battle that he was involved in at Bogoro.

Another ex-child soldier Erick Kenzo says that drug use among armed groups, particularly young recruits, is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

“We have used drugs, and often the addiction lasts after we have been demobilised,” he said. “Some continue to take drugs because of neglect. They are not helped to integrate into society, or to understand what has happened to them.”

Kenzo was kidnapped in 1996 by armed men, when he was just 15. He says that children often used drugs to forget the difficult situation in which they found themselves, and to banish any thoughts of home or their former lives.

Thousands of child soldiers were recruited during the various conflicts that have raged across eastern DRC, by local militia groups as well as the national army.

In 2008, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers reported that some 30,000 had been reintegrated back into society. But thousands more may have since been recruited during the 2007-2009 war between the National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP, a former rebel group, and the army.

The NGO programme co-ordinator says that militia leaders often encourage child soldiers to take drugs as a way of bringing them together and desensitising them against the acts they are being told to carry out.

She said that drug addiction can be a huge problem when trying to reintegrate former child soldiers back into society, since it can increase their sense of isolation from the rest of the community.

“When the child comes out of the army, he has to face up to the reality that he acted against his own community – killing, raping, looting,” she said. “Finding himself isolated, he often looks for former colleagues within the army or within the militias. They use marijuana to keep staying together – isolated but together.”

This is a particular concern given that a number of former child soldiers, who often feel insecure and rejected by society, end up returning to their former lives as a combatants or turn to crime, linking up with local drug-traffickers.

Law enforcers in the region agree that the drug problem is taking its toll on society and needs to be urgently addressed.

"Crime is increasingly linked to drugs,” said a captain from the criminal investigation unit of the police department in Goma, who did not want his name to be used. “We can show that the crime rate is high in districts where there is drug trafficking.”

For NGO worker Amani, resolving the drug problem is a critical component of rebuilding a society that has been shattered by years of unrelenting fighting.

“We must make people aware of the negative effects of drugs, and of our supervisions centres, which can help people overcome their addiction to these substances,” said Amani.

Lucie Bindu is an IWPR trainee in Goma.

This story is part of a series produced by journalists who attended IWPR Netherlands recent international journalism course in Goma.
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