Someone told Mahinda that he is 16 years old. But his skinny frame and narrow shoulders suggest he could be at least three years younger. He doesn't look strong enough to hold a machine gun – yet that is what he has been doing for the past three years.
Children drawn into the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the peculiarly awful aspects of the conflict. While the war officially ended in 2003, that has not meant an end to fighting in the east. The death toll, estimated at 3.9 million so far, continues to rise by the day. Mahinda (children's names have been changed to protect their identity) is one of some 30,000 children used as soldiers in Congo, one-tenth of all child soldiers worldwide, according to UNICEF.
But the current election period in Congo has meant a period of relative calm in the east, with militia groups waiting for the outcome of a second-round presidential run-off in late October. A successful democratic process could usher in peace – and give aid workers a chance to help soldier children adjust to a more normal existence by exposing them to a different future.
"Peace is the key," says Aliou Maiga, child protection officer at Save the Children. "The children are coming in small numbers at the moment. There are a lot of kids in the militias, there is still fighting, and we can even see that there is still recruitment."
Since UNICEF began coordinating the rehabilitation programs in 2002, the organization has dealt with more than 17,000 child soldiers who have been released by the numerous militia groups across eastern Congo. In the eastern Ituri region, more than 4,000 children escaped the clutches of militias in the past three months alone. The real number could be higher, as more are thought to have "self-demobilized" by walking home.
Abused and traumatized by years of fighting, the children struggle to rejoin Congo's damaged society. Continuing insecurity means their options are severely limited, making children prone to rerecruitment: When Mahinda was stopped on the road and abducted by soldiers, it was the start of his second stint as a soldier – he had already escaped another rebel group after fighting with them for a year.
Fifteen-year-old Bonhomme fought with the Mai Mai, a kind of gun-toting community watch group mobilized across eastern Congo to defend against the invasion by Rwanda in 1998. "They gave me a gun and nothing else," he says. "Sometimes, we would not eat for a week and just smoked cigarettes."
Despite experiencing the horrors of war firsthand, he says the Army is the only future for him. "I was really disappointed not to join the Army. They said I was too young," he says. "But when I am 18, I will join so that I get a salary, because when I return to my family there will be nothing. If there was anything else, I would not join."
Both boys stay at SOS Grands Lacs, one of two transit centers for former child soldiers in Goma, eastern Congo. Young boys sit in a makeshift classroom or lounge around outside their wooden shack dorms. Some act out martial arts movies while others dance to the beat of blaring Congolese music. Seventy-seven children are here today, although in the past, says executive secretary Albert Mushayuma, the center has housed as many as 235.
Every week, about 15 new arrivals come to the center. It will be their home for about two months while UNICEF attempts to reunite them with their families. Most of the children are forced out of the militias as part of a process of retraining and integration of militia forces into the national Army known as brassage. If fighters are under 18 years old they are refused entry into the Army.
"The children usually come out during the brassage process because, in our experience, they are released when they are no longer any use, not for any moral reasons," says Mr. Kitambala.
Release is not always the end of the ordeal. In June, a minibus full of former child soldiers on their way to be reunited with their families was ambushed by fighters loyal to Laurent Nkunda, a dissident general responsible for much of the instability in the eastern Nord-Kivu Province. Six children ages 12-17 were reabducted and taken into the bush, where they were beaten and thrown into a roughly dug dungeon. Tense negotiations between Save The Children and the militia leaders followed before the children were released. The incident underlines how precarious the children's existence is.
It is not only boys who have been drawn into this conflict, which continues to claim up to 1,200 lives every day through violence, malnutrition, and disease. It is thought that as many as 40 percent of children associated with armed groups are girls, but they tend to be less visible, raped and used as "wives" more typically than as fighters on the front lines.
Sifa is a slight 21-year-old mother of two. Earlier this year, she swapped her machine gun and rocket launcher for a sewing machine, and is now learning dressmaking at Goma's Girl Guides center. One morning nine years ago, Sifa was abducted by the Mai Mai as she collected water. "Once you are there as a girl, you belong to all of them even if there are 50 boys," says Sifa who was both "wife" and soldier. "I hope what I learn here will give me and my children a future," she says.
Wilhelmine Bamuswekere, a gap-toothed smiling woman wrapped in colorful Congolese cloth, is the director of the center, where some 20 percent of the girls were associated with armed groups. She looks after 60 girls, 10 of whom were child soldiers. The others experienced forced prostitution, beatings, or the loss of parents to violence or disease.
"Our aim," says Ms. Bamuswekere, "is to show the girls that they are members of society. Those who were with militias have no means for living, and we have to show that girl that she can keep herself and be useful in society and that society will accept her."
"Society must accept the children," says Angelique Nyirasafari, child protection officer at Save The Children, "because it was that society that abused them."