With a population of 77 million people, DR Congo is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa.
The war officially ended in 2002, but this country in the Great Lakes Region faces enormous challenges to heal the traumas generated by the armed conflicts that continue to this day.
About six million people lost their lives.
Abundant lands, water, biodiversity and the minerals exploitation stimulate long-standing tensions.
Despite being one of the richest countries in minerals like diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, and zinc, the country is included in the list of the Least Developed Countries. DR Congo is in position 176, out of 188, in the Human Development Index (HDI) 2015.
The legacy of years of atrocities, instability, and widespread violence has resulted in more than half of the population living below the poverty line.
At every five minutes, four women are raped. UN data indicate that more than 200,000 Congolese women and children have been victims of sexual violence.
The conflict generated a mass exodus; 3.8 million people have been displaced, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which indicated that more than seven million people need humanitarian aid.
Many families had to flee their homes to find a safe place.
The eastern part of the country has been plagued by armed conflict for more than twenty years. After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Hutus who committed massacre fled to the border of the neighboring Congo.
Considering the dozens of armed groups operating in eastern Congo, many have a practice of recruiting, often in a compulsory way, children to engage in combat as porters, spies, or to be subjugated to sexual slavery.
In the recent Gender Equality Index, the DRC was one of the last countries of the list, ranked 144th out of 148 countries, making this still a big challenge.
Gender equality is considered a prerequisite to assist in the development, growth, stability, and promotion of peace of a country.
The forced recruitment of boys to be part of armed groups is “reprehensible”, said Uruguayan Army Colonel Walter Berger, responsible for the Uruguayan contingent who is part of the Congo peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO.
“Clearly MONUSCO’s and UN’s mandate for Congo prioritizes the protection of the civilian population, and thus we have included the issue of child soldiers as a major problem,” he says.
Uruguay employs about 800 military personnel in the country and are located in the capital Kinshasa, on a large base in Goma and Kisangani, in addition to 140 air force military operating the Bukavu airport and, until 2017, naval military to patrol the Kivu and Tanganyika lakes.
Confronting children who act as combatants is “very difficult”, says Berger.
“When we are sent to the place and we come across child soldiers, culturally speaking, it is something that puts us in an ethical dilemma.”
In March 2017, when the peacekeeping mission was renewed for another year, the UN decided to keep the contingent of about 16,000 military personnel and 600 military observers from 49 countries.
The blue helmets are not the only ones working on the issue of child soldiers.
“Our role is to provide the conditions for UN humanitarian agencies to work, and the Department of Child Protection and Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) are responsible for trying to contain this scourge,” explaines.
It is common for military personnel to be accompanied by DDR agents during a stabilization and peacekeeping operation to begin the process of disarming combatants and to include children, who have been associated with armed groups, in child protection.
“We support them so that they can work for the general demobilization of militias, and particularly, of the children. It is a process of taking them out of the militia and getting them back to a normal life. This is not an easy task,” stresses Berger.
In the DRC, new armed groups have emerged every day from conflicts and are beginning to operate in several areas, fighting against each other and against the armed forces of the Congolese government.
Created in 2002 after the end of the Second Congo War, and even being the largest, most expensive, and most lasting UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO is not immune to criticism.
“For all those who criticize the role of MONUSCO, I think the first question we should ask is: ‘What would happen if MONUSCO were not in Congo?’. This should be the reasoning. There are many conditions being created for the DRC to move forward and this is due to the presence of MONUSCO that brings stability with it,” says the Uruguayan Colonel.
The future still seems uncertain, as the planned 2016 presidential elections were first postponed to 2017 and then to the end of 2018.
“I hope that the Congo can self-govern, that the wealth the land provides to the country be left to the Congolese themselves, and that the civilian population can develop and does not depend on an international presence. This is what we expect after a long effort.”
About 50 countries contribute with military personnel, from observers to military contingents.
In addition to Uruguay, Guatemala maintains a contingent of 150 Special Forces men at a base near Sake village, one hour away from Goma, in North Kivu.
“We intervene in times of crisis,” said Colonel Epafrodito Lopez. Since 2004, Guatemala has maintained military personnel in the mission in the Congo.
In his opinion, despite the fact that the war ended almost 16 years ago, armed conflict has not diminished.
“In some areas, there are groups that are economically supported by other neighboring countries to traffic different types of minerals. Even so, I have seen an improvement over the years,” says Lopez.
In 2017, the Security Council approved the withdrawal of 3,000 blue helmets at a time when the country is plunged into political instability by the delay of the elections. The budget was also reduced in US$1.14 billion and was due to pressure from the United States, the main financial contributor to peace operations.
In December 2017, the peacekeeping mission had 14 military personnel killed and more than 50 wounded in an attack on a MONUSCO base 45 kilometers away from the city of Beni.
The attack was considered by Secretary General António Guterres as the “worst” against UN soldiers in that country.
“The right place for a child to be is not in an armed group,” said Faustin Lyabahinduka, director of the Concerted Action for Disadvantaged Young Children (CAJED).
“In Congo, there is the armed-groups phenomenon after the genocide caused with the mass influx of people coming from Rwanda,” he explained.
Since 2007, more than 20,000 child soldiers have been released from armed groups in the DR Congo, according to UNICEF.
For two decades now, CAJED has been running transition centers in North Kivu that have received more than 10,000 children who have been involved with armed militias.
Ending child recruitment is a difficult task, admits Lyabahinduka.
“We do a sensitization work in the provinces with teams that go to the armed-groups local leaders and try to convince them to free the children.”
When efforts are in vain, some children can sneak out.
When they flee, they often seek UN or Congolese armed forces to surrender and ask for help.
This is where the demobilization process of ex-combatants begins. If they are children, they are referred to local NGOs working in partnership with UNICEF and with the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO).
“When we confirm that they are under the age of 18, we refer them to transitional centers so that they receive shelter, protection, and assistance,” he explains.
The minimum period children stay in these transition centers is three months.
An average of 100 children per month receive support at the 45 centers in North Kivu, that check the children’s background and circumstances before referring them to shelters.
The province of North Kivu has a population of about 7 million inhabitants, of which nearly 3 million are adolescents under 16 years old, according to the DRC’s National Electoral Commission.
Between 2010 and 2013, the UN documented 4,194 cases of child recruitment in a report sent to the Secretary-General on children in armed conflict. One-third of the documented cases involved adolescents younger than 15 years old and 76% of the cases were concentrated only in North Kivu.
The town of Kiwanja located 70 km north of Goma used to an important stronghold for the forced recruitment of children to the dozens of armed groups operating in the Masisi and Rutshuru regions.
In addition to trying to free the children from the armed ranks and to seek family reunification, a major challenge is to promote an economic reintegration of adolescents.
The offer of vocational courses such as welding, carpentry, and other services is one of the strategies of the local NGO called Union for the Promotion of the Rights of the Child in Congo (UPDECO), based in Kiwanja.
“Instability is what we have seen the most in this country,” said coordinator Jacques Buligho. In all the cases of rebellions, invasions, and insurgencies, children were used as a human shield.
Despite the apparent calm observed in the Rutshuru region, where the town of Kiwanja is, after the defeat of the M23 group of Tutsi origin, a number of other armed groups with ethnic-tribal connotations and other foreign militias still operate in the region.
Buligho describes the state of the children when they arrive after escaping or being released:
“They at a state of much fatigue. They come exhausted.”
The children return with a sense of frustration and low self-esteem. They are exploited by adults who convince them that they will have a better life and will make money.
“Children are deluded by the commanders’ speech and they start to be intimidated when they realize that the promises are false and that they were not who they imagined,” he tells.
Impunity reigns in the DR Congo, says Buligho.
“The country is dominated by impunity at all levels. Those who recruit and use the soldier children end up not being blamed and receive no sanction,” he criticizes.
The NGO UPDECO is a UNICEF partner in Rutshuru that has been active in the region since 1983.
Since 2014, it has assisted in the reintegration of over 2,000 children from armed groups – 430 of whom were girls.
The first goal is to get them to return to their families and return to school life. But as it is not always possible, many choose to learn a profession and generate income.
Buligho highlights the need to create a “community resilience” to receive former child soldiers back.
“The community should feel responsible for their children and support the efforts to prevent their recruitment and then to reintegrate them.”
We still need to show the communities that recruiting children is a problem for the community life.
“When the children are taken away by the soldiers, the whole community suffers,” he argues.