Karel Prinsloo/AP

Congolese Child Soldiers Still Being Recruited and Abused

October 03, 2008 06:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
A report from Amnesty International claims as many as half of child soldiers returned to their families may have been reenlisted, despite a peace agreement.

Abuse of Women and Children Continues

In spite of a January 2008 government and armed group agreement to end human rights abuses in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), violence between rebel forces and the government continues unabated. Recent reports based on research and eyewitness accounts from Amnesty International found that for every two child soldiers returned to their families, five more are enlisted. Rampant human rights abuses also continue.

Caught in a tug-of-war between rebels and the government, child soldiers are threatened with death for desertion. If they are discovered by government forces, however, they are often jailed and beaten. Amnesty International has called on the DRC government, the armed groups and the international community to renew their commitment to ending the conflict and abuses.

Andrew Philip, Amnesty International’s expert on the DRC, told The Irish Times that, for child soldiers, “The more they know, the more they are at risk of re-recruitment. In this case, experience can be deadly.”

According to British paper The Guardian, there are approximately 3,000 to 6,000 child soldiers in eastern Congo. At the war’s peak there were 30,000. Based on UN figures, The Guardian added that approximately 350 Congolese women and girls are raped by members of the warring factions each month, creating a terrifying atmosphere that makes it difficult for citizens to defy these groups. For women in the region, rape is considered a normal part of life. Victims acknowledge that rapists will usually go unpunished, and in the DRC, the crisis has led to an unbridled spread of HIV/AIDS. 

Anneka Van Woudenberg, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch, explained to CBS News how rape is used as a weapon in the Congo. “It is a way to ensure that communities accept the power and authority of that particular armed group. This is about showing terror.”

On Sept. 23, the Guardian reported that Ugandan rebels kidnapped 90 students from grade schools and secondary schools in the DRC. A village chief and two Italian missionaries were also captured, and three civilians were killed. UNICEF believes the children will be forced to launch attacks in Uganda. The rebels are members of the Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA, whose leader, Joseph Kony, has rejected any type of peace treaty until the international criminal court agrees to drop criminal charges against him.

According to Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Amnesty International report also included cases of government abuse such as detaining and torturing children, as well as raping women and girls. Chikez Diemu, the Defense Minister, responded, “I have just instituted four military courts to clamp down on soldiers accused of rape ...We need to look at the root cause of this problem instead of putting the government in the same league as bandits and rebels.”

Video: Interview with a child solider

Al Jazeera’s “People & Power” interviewed Madeleine, a child soldier from the DRC who was abducted at 13 and served there for two years. Madeleine testified before the UN Criminal court in the trial of Thomas Lubanga, the leader of the UPC (Union of Congolese Patriots). Madeleine explained, “I became a child soldier because we were attacked and there was no one to defend our country.” 

Background: Congo’s history of violence

In August 2007, the North Kivu region on Congo’s eastern border saw an explosion of violence, considered the worst fighting since the end of the country’s civil war in 2003. Despite a peace agreement brokered in January, the Guardian reports that “UN peacekeepers have been unable to stop the 20,000 government troops and several thousand rebel fighters from brutalising the civilian population.”

Slideshow: Death and disease in the DRC

The International Rescue Committee survey of the DRC found, apart from rape and violence, 5.4 million people have died from “preventable and treatable diseases” since the country's second civil war started in 1998. The BBC reports, “Some 727,000 people died in excess of normal mortality between January 2006 and April 2007, and nearly half of these were among children under the age of five.”

Opinion & Analysis: Congo peace process a failure

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), more than 370,000 civilians have left the North Kivu province since violence reignited between Laurent Nkunda and the national army. The ICG explains, “This new crisis results from failures of the Congo peace process on army integration, economic governance and transitional justice.”

Related Topic: Reintegrating ex-child soldiers

For many ex-child soldiers and even adult ex-combatants, reintegration into civilian life is a struggle. Salifou Yankene, whose father and sister were killed amid violence in the Ivory Coast, escaped his life as a child soldier there. Yankene told The New York Times, “There are some who can’t stop killing and giving orders. There are people who hate people. If you had a terrible childhood, if you hated your parents … I loved my parents.”

Former child soldiers and other demobilized combatants lack the skills necessary to obtain jobs. Jean Sayinzoga, chairman of the Rwandan Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission said, “When a military person is not integrated it can also be very dangerous. We are trying to give those without higher education some skills through apprenticeship programmes in tailoring and mechanics.”

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