“Capoeira makes me feel like I can do something. It makes me leave behind my past and everything I had to go through when I was in the armed group. It gives me great peace.”
Bestbrice, as he likes to be called, is 16 years old and had lived in Goma for four months, in the shelter for boys who had been associated with armed militias in DR Congo.
During this time, he learned the ginga of Capoeira.
He answers the question “what do you like most here?” without much hesitation, and the first word that comes to his mind is “Capoeira”.
“When I make the movements, I see that everything is very peaceful. Capoeira helps me to make more friends when we play together”, he says.
Bestbrice fought in the Hutu-Congolese armed group called Mayi-Mayi Nyatura, in the Masisi territory, 80 km to the northwest of Goma, in the North Kivu province.
The fighters of this armed militia, which is defined as of self-defense and that was created in 2010, form one of the countless militias of communal origin, the Mayi-Mayi, to defend their own territory against the threat of other invading armed groups.
Like so many other militias, the Nyatura were accused of various human-rights violations, summary executions, rapes, removal of citizens from their homes, and forced recruitment of child soldiers.
The data are scant but a UN report in 2011 indicated that there were between 20,000 and 30,000 Mayi-Mayi combatants acting in the two provinces of North and South Kivu.
Bestbrice describes without much detail some of the difficulties he faced during his time in the armed group, such as sleeping and eating. This is a chapter of his life that he prefers not to remember.
One night, he joined two other boys and planned an escape through the forest. The plan would have to be infallible and could not go wrong, because the cost would be paid with their lives.
The goal was to surrender. To do so, they would have to run at dawn towards a UN outpost where the military of the forces of peace are quartered. From there, the process of disarmament, demobilization, and social reintegration would begin.
Reaching a MONUSCO post was “difficult”, he reported. The three boys plotted the escape towards the UN base in Kitchanga, a remote town located 70 km away from Goma.
“We had to show evidence to prove that we had actually been in an armed group. To do this, we took bullets from the guns we used.”
Once surrendered, Bestbrice was then transferred to an ex-combatant verification center on a military base of the Congolese armed forces. As he was a under the age of 18, they sent him to the care of UNICEF as it is responsible for promoting the reintegration of ex-combatant children. And so he arrived at the CAJED transition center.
“Life is better here. We do not suffer anymore. We sleep well, we eat well. We do not have to fight”, he says.
The first time he saw Capoeira, which was a weekly activity at the shelter, it did not catch much his attention. Still shy, he just thought it was funny.
“But as the days went by, I saw it was a good thing. When you start playing Capoeira, everyone gets united. Even though we have fought in different armed groups, many rivals, I’ve made several friends here.”
The shelter is a temporary stay. When he turns 18, he will have to leave. Meanwhile, CAJED and UNICEF social workers are trying to find out the whereabouts of his family.
Bestbrice never met his mother. After giving birth, she had been rejected by her father and expelled from home. His father was in charge of raising him.
“I do not know where my mother is, whether alive or dead. If I could, I wanted to reunite with my family. I hope my father will accept me. If not, I would try to find an aunt. It looks like they are all in Rwanda.”
He still does not know how much time we will have to wait.
During the days he is in the shelter, he prays. “I try to pray to give me inner peace”.
If he could finish his studies, it would be a great achievement. Bestbrice did not pass the third grade.
“I want my life to continue.”