“With Capoeira, I feel that I can be myself.”
With these words, Melvin begins to tell his story.
“When I play, I feel good. I can interact with others and have friends.”
Not so long ago, the 16-year-old boy was initiated into the practice of Capoeira. After five months, he had his first contact with the ginga (the basic movement) and positions such as half-moon, armada, and chair.
Still timid, Melvin decided to give Capoeira a chance and try some moves. Today, it has become one of his main activities while he hopes to start a new life.
“I did not quite know what it was and, now that I am learning, I wish I could play as well as the teachers. I want to know how to do a lot of things with Capoeira”, he commented.
For five months, Melvin had been in the shelter of the PAMI, a non-profit organization that runs a space to house children who have been associated with armed groups in eastern DR Congo.
In the premises of the PAMI, a small site located in Keshero, suburb of Goma, is where Capoeira classes are given to the boys.
His story is similar to those of many Congolese teenagers from remote communities in the country.
In 2014, at age 14, he was kidnapped and taken to the forest by armed men who claimed to be fighters of the Hutu group called Nyatura.
Orphaned by his parents, Melvin was vulnerable and exposed to the greed of militias that used child force to operate in the country.
In eastern Congo, armed rebels often use teenagers to swell their ranks of fighters. The United Nations estimates that 15 to 30 percent of all the newly-recruited soldiers are under the age of 18.
Melvin was forced to leave his family, his community, and his childhood behind. With a bucolic name, his village Garden of Eden, in North Kivu province, was on the route of armed groups that are rebel against the government’s armed forces and the UN peacekeeping mission.
As a member of the militia, he had no choice but to fight in the jungle. His duties were to fetch water, prepare food, and act as a bodyguard of his superiors.
“Everything was difficult in the armed group. They beat us all day, in the morning, afternoon, and evening, when we had training. I wanted to get away”, he said.
He was not alone. Many children and adolescents were members of the armed group. In his reports, Melvin describes a total of about two thousand rebels concentrated in training camps.
The desire to escape only came to fruition six months later, when he managed to plot a night escape with nine other boys.
Rumors had it that child soldiers who wanted to leave their weapons could surrender to a UN peacekeeping mission outpost.
“I ran away carrying a gun. It would be very dangerous if I ever tried to return to my community. They would kill me.”
Since his surrender in 2015, he was sent to places of welcome and, in February 2017, he arrived at PAMI, in Goma.
For two years now, the introvert Melvin has not returned to the Garden of Eden. As he has lost contact with the members of his family, he is likely to become one of the thousands of orphans victim of the conflicts that have plagued the country since 2002, when a peace agreement was signed to end the Second Congo War.
Nowadays, at the PAMI shelter in Goma, his life has changed radically. He feels welcome and embraced at the place. “It is very different from the life I had in the armed group.”
Capoeira’s activities in the shelter offered him a fresh start and opened a loophole for Melvin to regain his self-esteem and identity.
In a little while, he will turn 18 and will have to seek an activity that generates income.
Melvin already has plans to work with furniture manufacturing and welding.