GOMA, Congo — “They said if I didn’t join the army, they’d kill me.”
It’s been a month since 16-year-old Viane escaped the armed group that abducted him, and the mere thought of these men still makes him shake in his seat.
“The hardest part was when they asked me to kill prisoners,” he said. “I still have nightmares.” He says he never killed anyone because he fainted every time he was asked.
Viane is one of a growing number of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo bearing the brunt of violence in the east that’s been exacerbated by President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to leave office when his mandate ended in 2016. Congo’s political crisis made 2017 a “devastating year” for Congolese children, according to the United Nations, and contributed to a spike in grave violations against children.
Total violations against children in 2017 rose by more than 40 percent over the previous year, according to a report released in May by the U.N.’s Children and Armed Conflict group. The number of children being used by armed groups as combatants and sexual slaves in the country’s center and east is “significant” and worrisome, said a report by UNICEF in 2018. More than 3,000 children have been used in armed groups in Tanganyika and South-Kivu provinces alone, according to UNICEF, and experts warn that violations against children only stand to get worse as armed groups proliferate inside North-Kivu and Ituri.
There’s a particular concern around the recruitment of child-soldiers, said Alexandre Becquevort, country director for DRC at War Child UK, a London-based nonprofit.
“Electoral tensions put children at much greater risk of recruitments,” he said.
Though Kabila has assured a restless nation and an anxious international community that elections scheduled for December 23 will move forward as planned, citizens remain distrustful and worry that more violence is in the offing.
Chaos in Kivu
President Kabila set off a political crisis in 2016 after refusing to step down from office when his term ended. His decision to flout his country's constitution set off protests in the capital Kinshasa and raised alarm among outside observers, including the U.S., which urged Kabila to follow through on his 2018 election timetable.
Few regions in the country suffered worse than North Kivu province. Over 1 million people were internally displaced in North Kivu at the end of December 2017, and by April of this year, that number ballooned to 1.5 million, according to the U.N., just as the country’s political crisis deepened.
Local leaders put much of the blame on Kabila, whose government they accuse of collaborating with warring militias to further destabilize the region and create a pretext for election delays.
“They’ve witnessed many violations, sexual abuse and torture.”
During a trip to the region in June, three armed groups told VICE News that they were approached in recent months by government soldiers to collaborate on fighting other groups and instigate more violent clashes throughout the region. Congo’s government denies any association with armed groups and the notion that Kabila is trying to incite violence in the east.
One thing is clear, however: Kabila has struggled mightily to contain the country's breakaway east, where approximately 140 armed groups currently operate in the forests of Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces alone — up from 120 one year earlier, according to the Kivu Security Tracker.
This proliferation translates into greater recruitment of child soldiers, said Becquevort.
“I thought about death”
Viane was 15 when he and three other members of his school soccer team were abducted by an armed group in his hometown of Rwindi in Rutshuru Territory in North Kivu. They were told they’d been selected to a group of star student athletes who travel nearby regions to train younger players. Instead, they were drugged and forced into warfare.
“I thought about death. I thought about my family having no idea where I was. I thought I was going to be killed,” he says.
For the next eight months, together with 20 other children, Viane knew only two things: labor and war. He was drugged regularly and instructed to slaughter alleged dissidents captured by senior officers.
“I couldn’t conceive of how to kill a man, and I kept asking myself what will happen to the blood around him, what will happen to the body, what will I gain from killing this guy?” he said.
Instead, he witnessed countless murders by fellow child soldiers.
In April, Viane escaped. During a mission to resupply fighters with weapons, he hung back from the group and hid in the bushes overnight. The next morning, he found the nearest U.N. base and turned himself in. Today, the 16-year-old sits in a youth transit center in Goma waiting to be reconnected with his family after his months of rehabilitation pass.
“What we see is only the tip of the iceberg.”
More than 3,000 children, including 428 girls, left armed groups and were assisted with reintegration programs in 2017, says UNICEF.
Experts say current estimates only scratch the surface and that the numbers in 2018 will probably get worse.
“What we see is only the tip of the iceberg, meaning the children who manage to leave the groups and who are willing to identify themselves with (the U.N.),” said Becquevort of War Child UK. But there are thousands of children in armed groups.”
He said that the rise in child soldier recruitment was linked to renewed rebel group activity. But what worries him more, is that the propagation of groups is pushing children toward voluntarily recruitment in lieu of better options.
“I felt it was the only solution.”
War Child released a report earlier this year that draws a strong connection between the vast presence of children in armed groups and how easy it is to join, citing a “striking” finding between regular interactions with armed groups and communities in the villages. While there’s no single reason children join armed groups, household poverty emerged as the strongest driver according to the report, as well as hunger, lack of opportunity, vengeance and boys trying to escape a bad situation in their communities.
Singura was only 10 when he joined the FDLR — a Hutu militia that operates in North Kivu. Orphaned at a young age with siblings in no better shape to support him, Singura says he had little choice but to fight.
“I felt it was the only solution,” he said.
Friends in the village introduced him to the militia’s commander. The man never questioned his age, and Singura spent the majority of his formative years fighting. He watched children like him die in clashes with other groups. He watched as fellow soldiers murdered civilians in cold blood.
“[Civilians] had to be killed in front of everyone. They could be killed by cutting off their heads with machetes or shooting them and throwing their bodies in the river,” he said. “It was horrible to see.”
In 2016, after four years of fighting, Singura was captured by the Congolese army. He spent the next two years in prison before being moved to the youth transit center in Goma in June.
Founded in 2000, the center is run by CAJED, a national NGO providing psychosocial support for former child soldiers. It has helped more than 12,000 children aged 10-17, including 775 female child soldiers, reintegrate with their families and communities.
“They’ve witnessed many violations, sexual abuse and torture. The girls are systematically raped and molested,” said Gilbert Munda, coordinator of CAJED. “It’s a long process to help them forget.”
The proliferation of armed groups in the region in recent months has become one of the center’s greatest challenges. Munda’s concerned the increased recruitment will only make it harder to keep children out of the army in the future. He estimates 10 percent of his graduates return to fighting after they’re released.
“It’s a long process to help them forget.”
Congo’s national army is calling on both the state and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo to break the vicious cycle of the country’s child soldier problem.
“If a child leaves a family [to go to the army] for economic reasons, then after a month of being demobilized he goes back to his family and then back to the army, it’s the government’s responsibility to fix the economy,” said Ndjike-Kaiko Guillaume, director of communication and information for the army in North Kivu. “All partners need to support the government to fight the real cause of the issue,” he added.
Singura regrets the decision he made eight years ago to fight. Now 16, the lanky teenager’s dream is to become a driver. No matter how dire things get, he says, he’ll never return to the bush.
“Even if I have no food, even if I have nothing, I will never go back,” he said. “Because at every moment, you think you could die.”
Cover image: CAJED is a transit center for youth after leaving the army and before returning to their families.