More than 20,000 child soldiers have been freed from the armed forces and groups in DRC in the past ten years, according to a recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Obedi, a former child soldier shares his story.
Being a child soldier in DRC
« I let out a sigh of relief when I was finally able to leave the army. I no longer wanted to be forced to accompany soldiers or to freeze to death at night. At times, I narrowly escaped death because I was often on the front lines, transporting the dead or injured…,” he relates.
Young Obedi was 11 years old when he started accompanying soldiers of the regular army, which was operating in his village, in Nyamilima, in the province of North Kivu.
War after the street
In a calm tone: “Now, I am 21 years old.” He goes back in time to tell his story. Very early, he was forced to leave school, following the deaths of his parents, swept away by the rebellion of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), which began around 2007 in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Because he was always aimlessly roaming the streets of Nyamilima, his native village, he was enlisted by the military to transport equipment (ammunition boxes, bags). Some not so easy days from then on: “I wake at dawn, frugal meal and cold nights spent outside.”
A child and already Sergeant Major
With a sharp eye, Obedi recounts how, during the first years of the conflict, he also entered the ranks of the Mai-Mai rebel group of the Shetani warrior, a young man from his village. “I fought in several places: first in my native village of Nyamililma, in Ishasha, on the Congolese-Ugandan border, and in Kisharo where we earned a lot of money erecting a barrier for vehicles,” he explains.
Following a wake-up call, he decides to escape. “I absolutely needed to leave the rebellion, even though I ended my time there with the rank of Sergeant Major. I no longer wanted to continue to fight,” he recalls.
After M23, demobilization
It is only after the war against the M23 rebellion towards the end of 2013 that the national programme for demobilization, disarmament and reinsertion PNDDR-child’s section transported these child soldiers from North-Kivu to Kamina, in the ex-province of Katanga.
« We were over 200 child soldiers, if I remember correctly! » he says. This programme is for all child soldiers who are part of an armed force or group, including children who are porters or messengers, explains a community outreach representative.
Obedi was therefore one of the children whom this Congolese government programme wanted to rehabilitate into civilian life. He who fought in DRC and sometimes in Uganda, employed both by governmental forces as well as by those of the opposition.
Child soldier, a descent into hell
This young teenager lived through gruesome scenes of war, hence his psychological struggles. Obedi: “sometimes, during the rebel attacks in my village, I was forced to stay with the soldiers. I trembled in fear at the sound of the bullets whistling over our heads, not to mention the explosion of grenades or the cries of the rebels. It was terrorizing, so much so that I sometimes had nightmares at night.”
With a tired look, Obedi declares that he wants to forget everything in order to return to civilian life. After the demobilization of child soldiers, they follow a social reintegration programme. According to Katembo Malekani, head of the project for the demobilization, reintegration and prevention of recruitment of child soldiers, “education is key for social reintegration.” He adds, “But there are other forms of training to allow those who do not want to pursue the traditional curriculum to benefit from a technical training.
Obedi’s dream come true
In front of a house of unburnt bricks under construction, the young demobilized soldier admits he does not want to go back to school for the traditional curriculum, considering his age.
« All that I wanted was to have a hair salon or to get my driver’s license, » Obedi says with a broad smile.
An optimist, the young man is now pulling through. Thanks to the project for demobilzation and social reintegration, Obedi was able to benefit from aid, which allowed him to build his house. “I also received in-kind help, lawnmowers and accessories for my hair salon!” he ponits out.
During this time, he earns a bit of money every day in this business. He continues to build his parents’ house, after their deaths in the war: “This one is made of burnt bricks and is only missing roofing sheets,” indicates a neighbour who also appreciates the work of this young man honouring his parents.
More than 20,000 child soldiers in DRC have been freed from the armed forces and groups in the past 10 years, according to a report of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Children, not soldiers
More information on the protection of children leaving armed forces and groups in DRC:
Thanks to Sweden (SIDA), the USA (USAID), Canada (CIDA), Japan (JICA), the Netherlands, Belgium as well as UNICEF France, Amade, UNICEF Germany and previously CERF for their support to programmes assisting children released from armed groups and forces.
Translated by Lisa Berthelot