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.
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.
"It has to do with the scale of the conflict and with the involvement of so many different groups," says Ms. Ironside. "There are not just two groups. There are scores of groups, each with its own constituency, and the central economic drive of survival attracts people to fighting, both adults and children. They are not going to school; they are not eating; and the power associated with being a member of an armed group may allow them to get something they can't get otherwise."
Everyone uses child soldiers
All armed groups make use of child soldiers, says Ironside, but some, such as the FARDC, are demobilizing children, while others, such as the Mai Mai, a militia of Congolese Hutus to which Bahati belonged, draw nearly half their forces from child conscripts.
Many of the young fighters are attracted by the simple yet racist slogans about defending their ethnic community. One of the older soldiers, who is 19 years of age, says he joined the CNDP of Tutsi commander General Nkunda as a young teenager but defected to the Mai Mai militia of General La Fontaine three months ago when he was told that Nkunda's people were killing his own Hutu people.
"We were told that the CNDP were killing a lot of our people, so I left to join the Mai Mai," he says. After being sent to fight "against the Tutsis," he was captured Sept. 9 at Ngunga, and remains in a CNDP prison here in the town of Kitchanga.
One of the captured FARDC officers, Lt. Mapendo Faustin, says he disapproves of recruiting children as soldiers. Of the militias, he says, "They are stupid to recruit young boys. They can't be soldiers. They can't do what is normal for a man to do."
But in a war where every ethnic group is fighting for its very survival, there seems to be no end in sight for child recruitment.
One seventeen-year-old, a wispy thin kid with a baby face who avoids eye contact, joined the Rwandan rebel group FDLR in 2003 at the age of 13. He traveled to Congo to be with his father, who had been a member of the FDLR, the armed group led by Rwandan Hutu extremists who carried out the genocide of 1994 that killed some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.
But when he arrived, his father fled back to Rwanda, and the teen was forced to become a soldier in his father's place.
"When I was in the refugee camps here in Congo, I knew that the Tutsi is my enemy, and my father told me we have to fight the Tutsi wherever he is," he says.
He was not a porter but a fighter, he says, and in early September, he was sent by his commanders to fight in a battle he couldn't win. On his side, there were two companies of some 200 soldiers commanded by FARDC officers. His enemy, the CNDP, had a battalion of nearly 500.
"I got my weapons and ammo from the government, and then we were told we had to fight the Tutsi," he says.
He grows silent. "Since I have been captured, I feel like the Tutsis are like my parents. They keep me safe. They don't strike us. They feed us and give us clothes." It's much better treatment than he received from the FDLR, he says. In four years, he's never been paid.
As dusk falls in Kitchanga, a town without electricity, the young boys are marched off to the barracks. There, they will spend another night as prisoners of war.
[Editor's note: The original version contained photos and text that identified some of the child soldiers. For their safety, this information has been removed.]