“Before I started playing Capoeira, I used to remember the moments I had spent in the forest. I used to revive in my mind the life I led in combat. Since I started Capoeira, I no longer think about this chapter of my life.”
For nearly two years now, Djoking has lived in the transition and orientation center of CAJED, located in the suburb of Goma, capital of North Kivu province, east of Congo. The shelter receives boys fresh out of armed groups and helps reintegrate them into social life by leaving a militarized routine behind.
There, Djoking discovered an activity that impressed him: Capoeira for Peace, a UNICEF initiative that had strong support from the Brazilian embassy in Kinshasa and that has offered hospitality to more than 4,000 children.
In addition to the soccer and English classes he attended, for the first time he heard the echoing sound of berimbau and the paced rhythm of Capoeira and its toadas (songs with simple melody), besides the free and acrobatic movements in circle that charmed him.
Everything was utterly different from his life in the forest.
At the age of 14, the boy was kidnapped from his hometown of Kisangani, capital of Tshopo province in the northern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Swahili, ‘a city on the island’, Kisangani sits in the heart of the rainforest bathed by the waters of the Congo River and its tributaries.
It was the night of December 25, 2014, when the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) kidnapped 35 children and took them to training camps 800 km away from there, near the Ugandan border.
His mother had abandoned him when he was still a baby and left him in the care of his father, a soldier from the Congo military (FARDC) who died when he was still 12 years old.
Djoking had no family. “I lived on the streets. I became a street kid in Kisangani.”
This is a Christmas night that he remembers in details: “They called me across the street to help unload a container. They said they were going to give me money.” Without much thought and in search of exchanges to survive, he did not hesitate.
“As soon as I got in the container, they closed and locked me in there. They were armed with knives and machetes. Besides me, 34 other children had been kidnapped. They hid us at the back of the truck, behind the fruits”, he recalls.
Those were eleven days crossing the country inside a container. “I did not know what would happen to me or to the others.”
A child soldier
Without a choice, Djoking was recruited as a soldier of the Islamic armed group code-named ADF, one of the more than 70 militias operating in North Kivu.
After several days cloistered aboard an enclosed truck with only a hole on the floor that was used as a toilet, the group of boys arrived in Eringeti, North Kivu, the sanctuary that serves as the base for the actions of the ADF group.
When they came down, some armed men announced: “Now you will have a job, we will teach you”.
When they heard such words, the feeling of ecstasy and hope arouse among the boys. “We would finally have a job!”, he said.
But Djoking and his kidnapped colleagues did not know that his “job” would be to kill people.
Eringeti was the place where the boy from Kisangani was trained to leave his street life and become a fighter.
“The soldiers carried guns and knives. We were very afraid, but we could not cry. We could not ask for anything, we did not know what was happening.”
The life in the forest was hard, he recalls. The only food they had was raw yam. “When we could eat a little meat, we did it without the bosses knowing.”
The fear of their elders and the punishments they might suffer prevented them from rebelling.
Djoking was able to describe details of a past that had been around for a long time.
“I do not know exactly how many children there were over there, but there were lots of boys. I could say that, in all, about 5,000 soldiers were distributed in several battalions. Where I was, there were around 400 or 600 in the forest.”
The use of child soldiers is a common practice of armed militias in the Congo.
In 2014, the ADF was blacklisted by the United Nations for violating humanitarian laws against women and children, mutilating, decapitating, abducting dozens of people, and terrorizing whole villages.
Child soldiers’ chores included cutting wood for contraband at the border. The illegal removal of Libuyu (a high-value tropical species) is one of the group’s main sources of resources.
In the military camp, they slept in tents, but when they were in combat, the only option was to sleep in the open air.
“They trained us on how to use guns, machetes, and 5-kg hammers to hit people’s heads.”
The boy says that he has been in combat three times. Once against an attack by the Congo military along with the blue helmets from the UN peacekeeping mission; another time against a group on the mountains; and a third time when he was forced to “kill innocent people”, he says. “They killed 52 people and I also had to kill.”
He was not sure why or against what he was fighting. The superiors told them that they were in training and would pay them one day. “They were lying. They never paid us. “
It took an entire year in the forest to earn the trust of his superiors. In January of 2016, Djoking was sent to an important mission: to be a spy in Goma, city where the UN peacekeeping mission was headquartered.
That was the moment he had waited so long to get away.
They took him to cut his hair after long months. It was the cue to say that he would get something to eat, when he managed to mislead the member of the group and resort to the police station in Quartier Virunga, one of the neighborhoods of Goma.
“In the police station, I told my story and everything I knew. But they did not believe me.” From that moment on, he recounted his story dozens of times to a local television station, at the children’s police station, and at the army intelligence.
A month after escaping, in March 2016, he was sent to the United Nations base to begin the process of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants.
As he was still under 18, Djoking was transferred to temporary shelters under UNICEF coordination.
About to turn 18, the boy is not afraid to tell his story.
In the shelter, he had to adapt to the new reality. At first, he only spoke Lingala. Little by little he learned Swahili to communicate with his pairs. “This shelter has become a family for me. I have English classes, I play soccer, and I also practice Capoeira on Tuesdays and Thursdays”, he said.
Capoeira is one of the activities that helped him become integrated into the group. Like him, the other boys also share stories of survival, trauma, and overcoming.
“I see that things are getting better now”, he hopes as he glances out the window and sees his colleagues in the open, gravelled ground where they play soccer.
“Our teachers teach us in Capoeira that, if you are about to kick, you cannot touch the other. We have to be able to control our movements. That’s how we make friends in Capoeira.”
Djoking still does not know about his future. When he turns 18, he will need to leave the shelter. Since the day he arrived, the social workers have struggled to find a relative or his mother, who he does not even remember the face.
An only son, he grew up with his father and stopped his studies in the second grade. The news that came to him was that his mother would be in Isiro, a city of 200,000 inhabitants in the province of Haut-Uele 900 km to the northwest of Goma.
While the day to leave the shelter does not come, he expects to receive an adoptive family. “I hope I have the chance to find a family that will shelter me, teach me, advise me, and support me. I wish I could go back to school.”
He still does not know which career he could follow, but he remembers the advice given by his father who encouraged him to be a soccer player. “Today, when I play soccer, I think of him. He would tell me ‘son, I want you to be a great player.'”