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In Congo, Helping Former Child Soldiers Find Their Way Home
By Peter BiroKisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo - 18 Apr 2006 - “This is the house of my father and mother.”
Laurent, 17, is pointing at a big “X” on the map he has just drawn of his small village, situated on the banks of the Congolese river of Lomami.
He hasn’t seen the village or his parents in four years – ever since the morning he was abducted by soldiers who raided the village.
“They gave me a uniform and told me that now I was in the army. They even gave me a new name: ’Pisco’ They said that they would come back and kill my parents if I didn’t do as they said.”
Sitting on a bench in an IRC-run youth center in the battle-scarred Congolese town of Kisangani, Laurent has spent the morning talking to youth counselor Didi Dimbi about his life before he was forced to become a child soldier.
“I really liked school,” Laurent remembers, clutching a small, well-thumbed bible. “I hope I can start again soon. I want to learn French so I can get a good job.”
When the fighting stopped Laurent was brought to a demobilization camp, where the IRC found him. Like many other former child soldiers in the area, he was placed in a foster family while IRC’s tracing teams search for his missing family. And looking at the map, Didi Dimbi estimates that it will be a long journey.
“We need to travel in a pirogue (dug-out canoe) along the river here,” he says, tracing the boy’s drawings with his finger. “It will take us at least ten days to get to the village and locate his parents.”
IRC’s Carine Mweze who runs the program in Kisangani, puts the map, along with a photograph of Laurent in her handbag.
“The boy seems to remember a lot of details about his village and we will prepare to leave in the next few days,” she says. “The reunification is the part of the job I like the best. When we locate the parents they are always overjoyed and in a few minutes want to know everything that has happened to their child. It is always a very emotional and happy moment.”
In less fortunate cases, when parents turn out to be dead, IRC tracks down extended family members or foster families willing to adopt the children.
Since the Congolese war started in 1998, it is estimated that up to 30,000 children were part of the country’s many fighting forces. In this complex conflict, which has included numerous local armed groups and the armies from several neighboring countries, some children were made to fight, while others served as cooks, sex slaves or porters. Over the past three years, the IRC has worked to reunite over 1,200 children with their families. The IRC has also helped hundreds of children to start school, get an apprenticeship with a local business or enable the family of the child to start their own a farm, providing them with seeds, tools and animals.
“Whenever I work with child soldiers, the very first thing they ask when they get out of the bush or of the rebel camp is if they can go back to school,” the IRC’s special child advisor Marie de la Soudière observes. “We’re talking about 16, 17-year-old tough kids. I must say I never expected that they were willing to sit down on benches with 10-year-olds and start all over again.”
While arrangements are made for the trip to his home village, Laurent spends the days at the youth centre and evenings with his new foster parents, Casimir Ubengi and his wife Annie. Working with the local church, Casimir runs a small medial clinic next to his house on the outskirts of Kisangani. Over the past couple of years, nine former child soldiers have found temporary shelter in his home.
“I try to give them advice on life,” Casimir says, sitting in his dark living room with dirt floor. Outside the window, banana plants grow next to a small vegetable plot.
“I tell the boys that they have to move away from their previous mentality and that they have to take responsibility. I see myself both as a counselor and a father figure. And most of the time they listen to what I have to say.”
Carine Mweze says the IRC keeps a long list of homes willing to take children in, which means that the time the children spend in a demobilization site is kept to a minimum.
“People are very religious and believe that if they do a good deed, they will be repaid,” she says. “Also, they hope that by taking care of these boys, others would do the same to them if their children got lost.”
Casimir nods in agreement. “I pity these children,” he adds. “I saw many of them leaving for the frontline in their over-sized uniforms. And, now that they are back, a lot of work remains to be done to explain to both the children and the communities they came from that they all have to live together again, and forget.”
Sometimes communities fear the children or hold them responsible for the atrocities during the war. Carine says that it sometimes takes time, patience and a lot of explaining to reintegrate them. And a cleansing ritual is often required before accepting a child back into the community, to get rid of the child’s “bad spirits.”
“They will have to be purified,” Casimir says. “Sometimes they need to be washed in beer and palm wine.”
Not far from Laurent’s temporary home, in the centre of Kisangani, another boy has started a new life. Jules, 17, was recently reunited with his family after seven years of fighting in the volatile eastern part of the country. The IRC has since helped him get an apprenticeship with a shop specializing in repairing fridges and freezers.
“I like my new job,” he says, smiling at his teacher Dido Sanduku. “I get to meet new people every day. Before I destroyed many things. Now I’m learning to repair.”
Editor's Note: The names of the boys in this article have been changed for their protection.