Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Child soldiers of Congo

In the Congo's decade long war, many children have been stolen from their homes and forced to fight. Over five million people have died in the war in eastern Congo.

OXFAM's press service has a story about some of the boys who are being rehabilitated. A Congolese NGO and UNICEF operate a transition center for the boys. The center helps to heal them from what they saw or did, and to get them back into real life.

The story from OXFAM begins with a story of how Fidel got caught by soldiers then later escaped.

Fidel sits in front of me in an orange and brown striped T-shirt. It has a roller-skating motif and is emblazoned with the word 'freestyle'. He's shy. His glowing eyes often look down and he occasionally bites his lip. He looks younger than his 14 years -about eight years old. It's difficult to match his face with the horrible story he tells me. Fidel is a former child soldier, but looks like any other kid.

Fidel had an 18 year-old brother who deserted the Mai-Mai, one of the eastern Congo's multitude of armed factions. Men from the group came looking for his brother at family home, but he wasn't there. Fidel was. They decided to take him instead.

"My mother begged and cried," he says, "The rebels said they'd spare me if my mum paid them $100. But we were poor and didn't have the money."

As he was snatched away, his mother screamed. The soldiers said that they would kill her if she didn't shut up.

He finds it difficult to play still, he says. Even though he is now in a safe place, he still has the memories.

"I used to carry ammunition for the soldiers as they fought on the frontline. One day I saw 60 bodies dead in the battlefield. I knew then I needed to escape or I'd end up dead myself."

After six months of enduring beatings with sticks, Fidel managed to escape one night when the soldiers were sleeping. He ran for two miles in darkness of the night until he reached the base of MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission for Congo.

The stories of children like Fidel and Michel painfully underscore why we need to find an end to horrific violence that has plagued the eastern Congo for too long. Child protection agencies have reported that Mai Mai militia in the town of Rutshuru recruited 37 children into military service the week before last. An estimated 150 children have been forcibly recruited since heavy fighting resumed in August.

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