Teen speaks out, shares his life story about being a child soldier in the DRC
CAPE TOWN – Ending the use of child soldiers will require sustained commitment to reintegration, Industry publication DefenceWeb said, citing a story of a child soldier who was forced to join a militia group in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the age of 13 years.
MK was an unruly child, by his own admission.
The Idgwi island boy was not a good student. He didn’t listen to his parents or teachers. At age 13, he travelled to Goma, in DRC’s North Kivu province, to visit his older brother. While there, members of the National Congress for the People’s Defence (CNDP) drove up in a car, stopped him and asked him for identification.
When MK said he did not have an ID, members of the Congolese Tutsi anti-government militia tied him up, put him in the car and drove him to their camp in Kitchanga, where they threw him in a hole. He remained there for two months.
“Then, they took me out for questioning,” MK told the Voluntary Force at the Service of Childhood and Health in the DRC.
“I had to choose between dying and working for them. They left me two hours to think about it (with water and food). I said to myself that if I refused, I was going to die because there was no one to help me or warn my family. If I worked for them, I would one day manage to find a solution.”
MK soon learnt how to salute and how to handle a weapon. His captors appointed him to be an escort to a militia major. He began to smoke marijuana to keep his mind off his family. When the CNDP and the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) signed a peace agreement in 2009, MK continued to work for his commander under the FARDC. A year later, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC took him to the Transit and Orientation Centre (CTO) for rehabilitation.
“For the two months since my arrival at the CTO, I’ve been rebuilding my life, starting from scratch so that I can be a better person and be in a position to help my family,” MK said.
MK’s story is a familiar one for thousands of African children. Many are kidnapped and forced into militias. Many serve on the front lines as rifle-carrying infantrymen. Others serve as cooks, spies, porters, escorts, messengers, and sometimes as domestic or sex slaves. Some are as young as eight years old.
The experience can scar children for life, if they survive, according to DefenceWeb. It said those lucky enough to escape or be liberated must be rehabilitated, a process that requires significant investments of time, resources and programmes to ensure that young people leaving the battlefield can re-enter society and be productive and safe.
Some have estimated that about 40 percent of all child soldiers are in Africa, but the problem exists worldwide. Children also have been exploited this way in Afghanistan, Burma, Colombia, Iraq, the Philippines, Syria and Yemen in recent years.
The numbers also have been growing. Child Soldiers International, whose programmes now are operated by the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, reported in February 2019 that the number of child soldiers had increased 159 percent worldwide in five years. The former London-based human rights group said that it had documented 30,000 recruitment cases since 2012. Many others almost certainly go unrecorded.
The former group told The Defence Post that 3,159 children were recruited in 12 nations in 2012. In 2017, the number soared to 8,185 children in 15 nations. Incidents of sexual violence against children also jumped by 40 percent. In 2012, there were 679 documented cases. In 2017, there were 951.
“Child recruitment is among the most desperate human rights issues of our time,” Isabelle Guitard, then director of Child Soldiers International, told The Defence Post. “These statistics alone are shocking and probably only scratch the surface on the true scale of child exploitation by armed actors around the world.”
Children who survive the horrors of combat and other involvement in armed groups must be counseled, trained and supported as part of a comprehensive reintegration programme. The needs are staggering, as the services are expensive and require several years of involvement to fully reintegrate young people into society, DefenceWeb said.
According to the UN secretary-general’s 2018 report, 13,600 children benefited from support for release and reintegration, up from 12,000 in 2017. In Africa, 2,253 children were released from armed groups in the DRC, 883 in Nigeria, and 785 were liberated in the Central African Republic.
“Releasing children from the ranks of armed elements is essential, but it is only a first step,” according to a 2018 UN report on reintegration.
“Providing children who have been formally released with adequate services, as well as reaching out to those who have escaped or have been informally released, is a huge task.”
More than 50 senior officers attended the three-day conference led by the UN Mission in South Sudan’s Child Protection Unit and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Participants outlined several actions, including educating junior officers on the issue, improving ways to identify young people under 18 and increasing efforts to find and release children working as soldiers. The conference also stressed reintegration as a crucial component.
“Children need to be dissuaded from joining the military and should instead be motivated to be at school,” an officer with the National Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Committee, Andrew Oluku, said.
“The government needs to take more responsibility for the youth because they are the backbone of this country,” Oluku said.