Fifteen-year-old Kalami is one of the thousands of children that have been forcibly recruited by militias in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Snatched from his family by a rebel group to fight in a war that has torn the country since 1998, Kalami has been forced to commit all kinds of atrocities since he began fighting at the age of nine.
“We had to bury people alive… One day I was forced to kill a family, to cut up their bodies and eat them,” he confessed to Amnesty International delegates. After several scarring incidents, he attempted to escape from the group, but he was later recaptured and beaten. Near death, he was sent to a nearby hospital where UN staff found him and demobilized him.
“My life is lost. I have nothing to live for. At night I can no longer sleep. I keep thinking of those horrible things I have seen and done as a soldier,” he continued.
Kalami, like other child soldiers with his past, fear for their future. He is one of 33,000 children that have been demobilized in the past eight years in DRC. Of these, 550 children have left armed groups in the past five months, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Although some 444 children are in temporary centers in Kalemie, Lubumbashi, and Manono, and 113 others have been reunited with their parents, many of them return to their homes traumatized and uneducated, only to be shunned by their communities and even their own families. Often, they are seen as enemies in their old neighborhoods where they were forced to commit crimes before being recruited by militias.
The boys are regarded as potentially violent while the girls, having been used as sex slaves, are seen as “damaged goods”. Too old to go to school, some may be lucky enough to get vocational training and find a job, but for most, work is scarce. Just to keep from being hungry, some children even choose to rejoin the militias.
UNICEF estimates that approximately 4,500 more children are still working for armed militias, 1,500 of them in the province of Katanga alone. Although the DRC has signed Action Plans to end the recruitment of children, as well as sexual violence against them, these have been regarded as no more than public relations exercises by Amnesty International.
The DRC conflict is considered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The country’s mineral-rich eastern coast continues to be the epicenter of a political and ethnic conflict that has involved its neighbors, Uganda and Rwanda. Since the war began in 1998, 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict, while 2.6 million remain displaced by the fighting.
– Nayomi Chibana