Ranks of child soldiers swell again in Congo
Fresh fighting in the east has ended a three-year lull in using child fighters
The prisoners are huddled in a classroom, on display for journalists visiting the rebels led by Gen. Laurent Nkunda. The setting is appropriate, because half of these soldiers are boys who should be in school but have been pressed into war.Skip to next paragraph
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One fourteen-year-old, a soldier with a Hutu militia, says he was told in early September that he was going to join the Congolese Army. Instead, he was thrown into a fierce battle against Tutsi neighbors in the district of Ngunga, and was captured just days ago, on Sept. 9.
"[T]hey told us we were going to fight the Tutsis," says Bahati, speaking in the presence of a rebel intelligence officer. "I'm 14, but there are many boys younger than me. It's hard to know how many died in battle, but I saw two who died."
Nowhere has the use of child soldiers been as pernicious as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But in the past three years of relative peace, militia groups as well as the Army were starting to send their adult soldiers into an integrated Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the FARDC, and to send their child soldiers home to their families. But a recent bout of fighting – a tangled conflict of local ethnic militias, Rwandan rebels, and the Congolese Army – is putting that progress at risk. Untold hundreds and even thousands of young boys and girls are being forced to rejoin the fight, or to fight for the first time in a war that few of them understand.
"Over the years, thousands and thousand of children have been returned to their families, but all those efforts are in jeopardy right now with the recent fighting," says Pernille Ironside, protection officer for UNICEF in Goma, Congo. "We're at the brink of taking a major step backward in something that we were beginning to see moving in the right direction."
Ethnicity, resources drive conflict
Congo's ethnic diversity and incredible potential wealth are two of the main driving forces behind the phenomenon of child soldiers. With more than 200 ethnic groups, communities defend themselves by sending every able son into battle. With almost endless mineral resources of tin, gold, diamonds, cobalt, and coltan (a key component in making cellphones and computer gadgets), the economic stakes are high to control access to those mineral resources – by force, if necessary.
This recent window of peace, following the five-year-long Congolese civil war that toppled the dictatorship of President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, allowed aid workers to reverse the trend. In the eastern province of North Kivu alone, 8,500 children formerly associated with armed groups were sent home. Most were noncombatants, used as porters to carry ammunition and food. Some were untrained infantrymen. Perhaps most troubling are the untold thousands of girls who have been kidnapped and forced to become sex slaves for rebel commanders.