Recruitment and use of Child Soldiers
Armed conflict in eastern Congo has fractured thousands of families and led to the enlistment of an estimated 30,000 children as soldiers, porters and sexual slaves. Ten thousand of these children are in the province of South Kivu, where BVES operates. There are numerous armed groups and war-lords in the region who have recruited or forcibly conscripted children. Both boys and girls, typically aged 12 to 17 have been used in combat, and there are documented cases of child soldiers as young as six years old. Some children enrol “voluntarily”, as a way out of poverty and hunger, or to defend their communities.
Children are favoured by commanders because they are obedient, reckless in combat and easily manipulated . Profit is also a factor. Children rarely ask for pay or reward, and commanders often withhold food rations from children. Considered less likely to cheat, children are frequently used to collect “taxes” from the population as well as to undertake arduous labour such as gathering firewood or carrying boxes of ammunition. A common belief that children possess powers of protection results in many of them being used as escorts for commanders. In some groups, children are forced to take hallucinatory potions in the expectation that these have the power to deflect bullets.
Child soldiers are more likely to be used as lookouts and spies, or placed in the first line of fighting, factors that account for high levels of death or injury of children. Rape of girls by armed force or group members is widespread. As part of their training, many children undergo beatings and are deprived of sleep, food and water. Children who attempt to escape or who commit disciplinary offences are ill-treated or tortured, sometimes in the presence of other children. Some of these punishments result in death.
The physical and psychological consequences were described by a child protection worker in eastern DRC: “The children suffer intestinal worms, open wounds, malnutrition, malaria and pulmonary infections. They have physical deformations from old bullet wounds or from carrying heavy weapons. Many have mental problems. Drug taking and alcoholism is common. Girls give birth with great difficulty with the armed groups – there are many cases of fistulas. Undoubtedly many children die in the forest.”
Returning Home & Education
A child’s return home after release or escape from an armed force or group is also loaded with difficulty. In many communities, because of the crimes committed by the army or armed groups, some children risk reprisals, and most encounter prejudice and suspicion. All too often, the children encounter the same levels of poverty and lack of opportunity on their return home. Unemployed, excluded from school because their parents cannot afford the fees, and socially marginalized, many children are vulnerable to re-recruitment. Large numbers of other former child soldiers have drifted to work in the DRC’s dangerous mining and logging industries, or have joined the tens of thousands of Congolese street children.
Successful and durable reintegration in the community is generally considered the most critical phase in the rehabilitation of former child soldiers, and the most difficult to achieve. To succeed, it requires a programme of sustained professional support to address the child’s health, security and living needs on return, to help the child to rebuild effective personal relationships, to place the child in school, apprenticeships or income-generating activities, and to mentor the child and his or her family over the longer term.
It is estimated that 5 million Congolese children are out of school and only three in ten ever complete their primary education which is why Working Together-Congo is currently raising money to support BVES with its child education and reintegration programmes.