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In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, forced recruitment of child soldiers as young as nine into rebel militias continues to surge as fighting intensifies between renegade and government forces.
A report by Save the Children, a British-based international charity, revealed that over the past year children abducted for the purpose of war in the DRC has risen to unprecedented levels. Aid workers reported that across the eastern Congo’s North Kivu province there has been an increase in sightings of children marching in formation brandishing weapons.
“The situation for children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is catastrophic,” said Hussein Mursal, Congolese director for Save the Children. “Fighters from all sides are using children as frontline fodder, raping young girls and attacking houses. More money is desperately needed to better protect these young victims. International governments must put pressure on all sides to stop fighting before another generation of Congolese children loses their childhoods to violence and fear.”
Forced displacement in the DRC and surrounding countries fuels child soldier recruitment efforts. The United Nations estimates that since fighting began in the DRC, approximately 800,000 have fled their homes.
According to Save the Children, militia brigades in the Congo frequently kidnap schoolchildren and refugees and compel them to become soldiers, porters, spies and sex slaves. Battered and beaten, many are forced by age 12 to decide whether to kill or be killed—and sometimes forced to shoot brothers or sisters to stay alive.
Though the majority of children recruited are boys, young girls are also taught to fight and often become sex slaves of their captors, contributing to the nation’s high incidence of sexual assault.
“Every month, hundreds of women and girls continue to be victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence in all provinces of the DRC,” said Kemal Siki, spokesman for the UN Mission in the Congo, also known by its French abbreviation, MONUC (The East African).
According to Mr. Siki, 2,656 cases of rape were recorded in North Kivu between January and October 2007, while 4,500 cases were reported in South Kivu in the beginning of that year.
The DRC conflict can be traced to the Rwandan tribal genocide in 1994 during which Hutus murdered 800,000 Tutsis. Fleeing into the Congo area, Hutu rebels from the FDLR (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda) continued to fight the newly established Tutsi Rwandan government along the mineral-rich border with the DRC.
Claiming the DRC government was pro-Hutu, Congolese native General Laurent Nkunda, himself a Tutsi, deserted the DRC army with 6,000 renegade Congolese soldiers and began to fight the Hutus in defense of his tribe.
In response, the Congolese government, backed by one of the largest UN peacekeeping forces (second only to Sudan), has tried to quell the violence and stabilize the area—but without success.
The UN Security Council recently issued a statement demanding that rival militias, including Gen. Nkunda’s, “lay down their arms and engage voluntarily and without any further delay or preconditions in the demobilization, repatriation, resettlement” and that those groups “immediately stop recruiting and using children and release all children associated with them…”
Gen. Nkunda, however, denies allegations that he has been recruiting children to fight with his forces. In a statement issued to the MONUC, he said, “We are scandalized by the denigrations and other untrue charges against the CNDP (Nkunda’s party) on behalf of the MONUC which argued the recruitment of 200 students from the secondary school of Tongo” (Rwanda News Agency).
The conflict has caused aid organization Doctors Without Borders to name the country among its top ten most underreported humanitarian crises. It claims that limited ability to provide food and water to refugees has caused thousands of deaths.
“There are few places on earth where the gap between humanitarian needs and available resources is as large—or as lethal—as in the Congo,” said Jan Egeland, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (UN News Centre).
Save the Children has rescued 800 children from conflict in the past year. But according to their calculations in 2005, over 8,000 children were still fighting in West Africa, and another 20,000 children were in the process of being released.
However, helping children reintegrate poses its own problem. International aid workers report that, although many adolescent soldiers are terrified of being killed or raped while in captivity, it is often hard to rehabilitate them and reintroduce them into society. After being released, they are haunted by nightmares of their capture and often ostracized by their families, which makes it easier for them turn to violence to solve their problems—turning from victims into perpetrators—and rejoin rebel forces.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis has prompted the UN to call a conference to negotiate peace between the fighting factions. But with such deep-seated tribal hostilities, many Congolese are skeptical that ending the war is possible.