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Child Soldiers Fight to Regain Their Youth

By Lane Hartill

Francois was still in bed when the shots rang out. They echoed off the hills and rolled down past the banana trees. When they reached his mud hut, he knew that Congo's war had finally found him.

Up until now, his hamlet, the place he loved, hadn't been touched by the fighting. Every morning at 7, he hiked up the slippery mountain path in his flip-flops where he fought vegetation so thick, it was like walking through a salad. When he reached the peak, he stood in the mist that bearded the mountain. He took in the view, grabbed his hoe, and started turning the black volcanic soil in his potato patch.

Former Child Soldiers

CRS' partner, Caritas Goma, works with child soldiers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Former child soldier 1

Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Former child soldier 2

Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Former child soldier 3

Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Thanks to that trip up the mountain every day, his thighs grew powerful, his calves filled with muscle. This served him well on the shaggy soccer field below his house, where he was a fast runner and had a cannon for a right foot.

Speed is what he needed when the rebels showed up. As the shots grew louder, Francois knew he had to get out of there. He crept out of the mud house, slipped through the banana trees, and sprinted for the forest high above the village. The blanket of undergrowth he waded through every morning would now save him.

As a 15-year-old, Francois was a prime target for the armed groups who captured villages and forced young men to join their ranks. That's why he was so careful during his stay in the jungle. He and hundreds of others, who slept in thatch huts in the forest, never built fires at night for fear of tipping off the armed groups.

Returning to a Trap

After three months in the damp jungle, Francois wandered back to the village. He'd heard that the rebels had moved on. But when he arrived, they were waiting for him. He didn't dare resist. Those who did were gunned down.

That's how Francois became one of thousands of child soldiers used by the armed forces in Democratic Republic of the Congo. They spend months in these green hills hauling water, boiling bananas and chopping meat. It feeds the commanders, who yell at them. They carry ammunition on their heads and collect wood for fires they'll never get close to. The older ones aren't this lucky. They are forced to fight.

As conflict escalates in the Congo, the number of children taken as combatants, porters and laborers rises. Nobody knows for sure how many child soldiers are forced to work for the various factions. Since 2004, the United Nations estimated 30,000 children have been demobilized. Some children are reunited with family members. Others return to armed groups, seeking protection from the one they left.

Catholic Relief Services' partner, Caritas Goma, works with demobilized child soldiers. The demobilization center run by Caritas receives former child soldiers from the various armed factions in eastern Congo and counsels, feeds and educates them. Caritas also helps them find their families, a difficult task when many teens have been separated for years from their parents.

Opportunity to Learn

In a muddy hillside town in North Kivu, in a clapboard classroom that doubles as a bunkhouse, Joseph Bahati is giving 20 teen boys their first taste of French verbs. Some have biceps and forearms sculpted from months of packing a gun; others are small and thin, their shirts falling off their shoulders.

"Who can conjugate the verb 'to have' in the imperfect tense?" Joseph asks.

"Teacher, teacher, teacher," they trill, snapping their fingers, eager for a chance for a trip to the blackboard with a piece of chalk.

"Daniel," Bahati says.

A stocky boy, a head taller than the others, Daniel pauses, composes himself, and then starts in.

"I had. You had. He had."

For Daniel—who spent the last several months in the jungle, fighting—this is his moment to shine. Someone is actually paying attention to him, asking him questions.

The older ones, like 15-year-old Fabrice, were pushed to the front lines. They were shorter than the adult soldiers, they were told, and the enemy wouldn't see them.

"If you refused to go, they would kill you," Fabrice says. "I saw one man who refused to go to the front lines. They shot him immediately."

Short-lived Escape

Most boys stay at the Caritas center for two or three months. After they leave, some continue with school, others do not. But the schedule of classes at the center—math, French, Swahili, religious studies, traditional Congolese storytelling—gives them a shot, however brief, of education.

Paterne, a 14-year-old in pink jeans and a frayed t-shirt, worked as a cook in the camp of one armed group. He, along with the other teens interviewed for this story, was taken by the armed group by force.

Former child soldier with rabbit

A former child soldier in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo holds up a rabbit he raised for sale at a demobilization center run by Caritas Goma, a CRS partner. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

In the evenings he cooked plantains and butchered and grilled the goats the armed group stole. He and the other teens in the camp avoided talking to the soldiers; Paterne says they were afraid of saying the wrong thing and being shot. He thought about his family. One thought plagued him all those months in the camp: What if I die here with this group in the forest? My family won't be able to give me a proper burial.

One evening, when the soldiers were talking, Paterne and two others planned their escape.

"If we stay here, these men are going to kill us," the leader of their group said. "If we [change armed groups] everything will be okay." Under the cover of night, they escaped. They ran straight for another armed group.

"With the armed groups, if you leave one group, they will look for you," says Joseph, the teacher at the Caritas center. "So to protect yourself, you must join the group that stays in your village."

After years with armed groups, the Caritas center is like a summer camp for these teenagers. Paterne says the best part is the bed to sleep in, good food and, maybe best of all, clean clothes.

"I only had one pair of trousers," he says, referring to his days with the armed group. "I could never wash them; there were lice in them." He says he itched constantly. At night he slept on the ground in a poncho. In the morning, he would wake up in a pool of water that had collected in the poncho overnight. At the Caritas center, he says, it's the first time he's ever slept in a real bed.

Regaining Youth

At the center, they are able to play soccer. Nobody seems to mind that the ball is made from a wad of rags and plastic bags. They are taught how to raise rabbits, but most of the hutches are empty, cleaned out during the last raid by bandits. Intangibles are also learned here: how to eat properly, address adults and carry on a conversation. Confidence is built, the military mind-set is deprogrammed and, for the first time in a long time, they are able to be kids.

Joseph says that some boys arrive at the center and don't get along with the others. Daniel was such a case. He snapped at people and ordered younger boys to do his chores.

"They still think like they are in an armed group," Joseph says.

When he sees they are having trouble integrating, Joseph takes them on a walk. The individual attention from Joseph often loosens the memories they've been holding back. Joseph tells them what they were forced to do by the armed groups is not their fault, that they shouldn't blame themselves.

The counseling only scratches the surface. But Joseph knows that. He's there more to father, to care for boys who have been scolded and sneered at for the last several months. Boys who were forced to become men, forced to do things most men don't even do.

Now, finally, they can be something they haven't been in a while: Teenagers.

The names of former combatants have been changed to protect their identity.

Lane Hartill is the western and central Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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