For Congo’s child soldiers, brutalised and forced to kill, rehabilitation is a long journey. Yet in war-ravaged eastern Congo one transitional centre is slowly helping them rebuild their lives. Mary Riddell sees it at work, and talks to Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila.
Published: Thursday, 16 July 2009
Gilbert did not mean to kill anyone. He did not even intend to go to war. He was 10 when a relative enlisted him in a rebel army in eastern Congo and 12 when he led a raid in which his cousin died. 'I was ordered to kill the son of the leader in my village. I was put in charge of the group, and ordered to fire as people fled. The leader was my uncle; his boy was six years old.’
If Gilbert wished, he could make excuses for what he did. He could say, truthfully, that he would have been executed if he had failed to obey orders. In the frenzy of battle, he cannot even be sure whose bullet dealt the mortal wound. But, as the appointed leader, he shoulders all blame for an atrocity whose legacy he will never escape.
Gilbert is 16 now, and we meet in the transitional centre for former child soldiers where he has lived since UN peacekeepers rescued him two years ago. He is a solemn boy with a laddered yellow T-shirt and a face turned old by sorrow.
He has not told his story before, and he volunteers the information slowly. At first, he was enrolled by his relative in the CNDP (National Congress of the Defence of the People), the militia headed by Laurent Nkunda, now being held in a Rwandan jail.
Gilbert was tortured before fleeing into the arms of Pareco, a rival rebel group and another finishing school for juvenile killers.
By some fluke, Gilbert did not die in the crossfire between the two militias. One bullet hole is gouged in his neck close to the carotid artery; a second shot hit his groin. 'I was near a hospital, and a doctor bound up the wounds. But I wasn’t allowed to stay. After a few hours I was back in the forest. There were constant battles and, by the end, I was fighting every day. Then somone brought me here.
'I cannot go back to school. I have already reached adult age. I would love to see my family but I cannot go home to my village because of what I have done. My brother came to see me once, and I asked if I could return. He said that if I did, my old friends would kill me.’ I ask if he misses anything about being a soldier, and he says, 'I hate violence. But I think sometimes of my mitraillette [sub-machine gun]. I took it everywhere with me.’
Far from being the boast of a juvenile Rambo, this seems more like the nostalgia a normal adolescent might feel for an old toy. Gilbert has no other relics of childhood to cling to and no good future to embrace. He is a child of modern Congo: his story typical of a thousand others.
Congo should be a country of plenty. It possesses vast mineral wealth and its fertile land could feed the whole of Africa, but conflict and recession have left a nation the size of western Europe close to bankruptcy. About 5.4 million people have died in the war that has ravaged Congo for the majority of Gilbert’s lifetime. About 54 per cent of children here live in poverty; one third will not finish primary school.
These are the lucky ones. More than a fifth of children die in infancy, and 45,000 under-fives perish each year from avoidable causes. At the root of disease and exploitation is the internecine conflict whose fighters – easy to snatch and simple to train – are often under 10 years old. About 31,000 children have been demobilised from Congo’s battlefields since 1999, but at least 8,000 are still being used as combatants, porters and sex slaves.
The transitional centre where Gilbert lives stands in Goma, the major town of the eastern Kivu provinces. A row of shabby single-storey buildings is divided into classrooms and dormitories, where the 311 boys sleep, six to a room, in wooden bunk beds. The five girls who stay here have a room annexed to the director’s office to give them some vestige of privacy and extra protection.
A large playground running the length of the compound is bounded by high walls and security gates designed to keep intruders out. Although the layout suggests a halfway house between a boarding school and a young offender institution, the noise of boys at play reflects the joy of freedom.
This centre, set up in 2005 by a Congolese NGO called Cajed (Concert d’Actions pour Jeunes et Enfants Défavorisés) and financially backed by Unicef, is one of several similar institutions scattered across the country. Unicef helped reintegrate 4,657 child soldiers into their communities last year at a cost of $700 per child, but lack of funding means that a backlog of 3,000 youngsters are denied the specialist help on offer here.
Unicef’s regional head, Julien Harneis, urges all armed groups to give up their child soldiers. 'The conflict is causing untold humanitarian suffering and gross violations of children’s rights,’ he says.
Few understand such attrition better than Fidele Rutabagisha, the director of the Goma centre. He and his 17 staff are used to dealing with adolescents whose bitter experiences mean that their moods seesaw between glee and anger. From the moment they are referred to his care, Rutabagisha embarks on a regime of 'peaceful rehabilitation’.
'These children are used to the field of battle,’ he says. 'They have to live together in peace. First we give them clothes, blankets and sabots [plastic clogs]. Then we divide them into “family” units. They eat together and take care of their surroundings. They learn self-respect and la vie morale.’
Discipline is key to the curriculum. The children are woken at 6am and given an hour in which to wash, tidy their rooms and speak to their 'families’. Breakfast, which they prepare themselves, is from 7am to 8am. The rest of the day is divided into hour-long slots devoted to science, maths, music, sport and languages. 'Morality’ lessons focus on community life, courtesy and self-respect.
Outside counsellors are brought in to treat children with emotional and mental health problems, and pupils are gradually allowed out to mingle with townspeople. Some transfer to a halfway house to be taught alongside 'normal’ children: Oxfam, in conjunction with Cajed, offers counselling and training in carpentry, electronics, cooking and sewing to help teenagers back into the community.
Last year the joint programme arranged 558 homecomings. For the less fortunate, the only prospect is life with a host family, or a lone existence for those nearing adulthood. For the third of children who will never go home, the joy of others is sometimes hard to bear. Rutabagisha shows me a room damaged in a recent fracas. 'Some of the boys broke windows and smashed the roof. They were angry that no families could be found for them.’
Rutabagisha’s pupils, who range from eight to 16, have experiences to chill an adult soul. Some were abducted from loving families. Others were persuaded by influential adults that life as a soldier would be well-paid and easy. Guelord, 15, was invited to a relative’s home to meet his older cousin’s new bride. 'But there was no wife. My cousin said, “Get into this uniform. Here’s a gun.” I was trapped. I thought I could stay for a few days and then escape, but they paraded me as a soldier, and I could not go back after that. I did three years.
'The children serving with Pareco were on guard all night; many were assassinated by the CNDP, our enemy. If you made one mistake, you would be killed by your superiors. I did not kill anyone, but I wounded an older boy in an attack on the CNDP. I watched my bullet go into his leg, and I was frightened I would die, like many of my friends.’
Like many of the children here, Guelord was rescued by the UN. As yet no family has been found for him, but he hopes he will one day become a street trader or, if he is lucky, a shopkeeper.
Unlike the boys in the centre, Niclette never wanted to be here. She is 17, and five months pregnant. She went to war with her husband, who is in his thirties; not to fight, but because he told her they should be together. When a child protection team brought her here, she was distraught.
'No one bothered me when I was in the army. I was by my husband’s side, and I was not prepared for this. I didn’t know we would have to separate. I want and hope to see my husband again.’
Niclette cannot go home to her parents in Masisi, 30 miles away, because she is now the property of her husband. 'He gave my father and mother three goats as a dowry when we married, which means they cannot take me back.’ So she waits here, unsure what will happen to her or her child. 'I hope my baby will have the life of my parents, who grow beans and manioc,’ she says.
The civil war that defines modern Congo traces back to the country’s independence in 1960. A military coup by Joseph Mobutu in 1965 ushered in an age of corruption fuelled by the country’s mineral wealth. In 1997 neighbouring Rwanda invaded to flush out Hutu rebels, allowing anti-Mobutu insurgents to oust the president and install Laurent Kabila in his place.
In the ensuing fracas, Rwanda and Uganda tried to unseat Kabila, who was shot dead by one of his bodyguards in 2001, leaving his son to assume the presidency. A close-run election in 2006 established Joseph Kabila as Congo’s first democratically appointed leader.
Now, he tells me in a rare interview, his country is moving away from war. But the calm he proclaims is highly provisional. Earlier this year Kabila joined forces with his enemy, the Rwandan president Paul Kagame, to attack the rebel FDLR, made up of Hutu extremists who fled to Congo after orchestrating the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
In return, Laurent Nkunda – the CNDP leader who plotted to overthrow Kabila – was arrested and placed in custody by Rwanda, which had regarded him as an ally until international backers threatened to withdraw aid as a protest against the regime’s perceived approval of Nkunda’s killing sprees. This win-win deal, heralded as a great move towards peace by both leaders, has not so far benefited Congo’s beleaguered children. A few weeks after the end of hostilities, Oxfam reported that the FDLR were regrouping and that 250,000 more people had been displaced. As violence flared again, the charity repeated the call for the world to act and, in particular, to muster the long-promised 3,000 extra troops to boost Monuc, the UN’s biggest but enfeebled peacekeeping force.
Kabila refuses to acknowledge the frailty of a 'peace’ that has been dearly bought. The CNDP has been incorporated into the national army, and Nkunda’s brutish successor, Bosco Ntaganda, appointed a general in the government army, despite being wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including conscripting child soldiers. 'We made a painful decision,’ Kabila tells me. 'In Congo, peace must come before justice.’
Though there is little of either, Kabila has another ace up his sleeve. A $9 billion deal will give China a slice of Congo’s vast reserves of copper, cobalt and other minerals, in return for building 2,400 miles of road, 2,000 miles of railway, 32 health centres and two universities.
While this may not stop the fighting, Kabila calculates that the planned improvements to his country will enhance his personal prestige. The new infrastructure, to be concentrated in the eastern heartland where Kabila needs the votes, could be a boon to Congo’s children. Instead, it seems possible that the deal will mean more exploitation. Youngsters not signed up as soldiers are often requisitioned as miners, labouring for a pittance to dig the minerals, such as cassiterite or tin ore that make warlords rich and fund Congo’s endless conflict. A spokesman for the charity Global Witness says, 'You see kids of seven working long days in small tunnels.’
China’s planned stake in the extractive industries has alarmed aid workers, who fear its dubious human rights record will make things worse. 'That would certainly be a concern,’ says Daniel Large, the research director of the Africa Asia Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. 'Where you have weak regulation, Chinese companies are not unique in trying to get away with anything. But equally, you shouldn’t have only negative expectations. If anything, you can argue this is welcome. Congo needs investment, and it’s the first time a Chinese resource deal has had a social component, such as building schools.’
For decades the West has either violated Congo, in the case of the Belgian colonialists who inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or averted its gaze from a land whose children are sacrificed to brutality and greed. British politicians, like their European counterparts, have promised to help, but their good intentions have faded into silence.
In the playground of the rehabilitation centre, the music group is singing. 'Les enfants réclament la paix dans leur pays. Toujours la paix (the children reclaim peace in their country. Always peace).’ They have learnt to believe in a better tomorrow. But who, in Congo and the wider world, will justify their faith?
Names of the child soldiers have been changed