“Fighting in the forest has no future,” laments the Congolese Jetaime Kambale Pamoja.
At only 12 years old, he joined a communal self-defense group, among the tens that proliferate in eastern Congo and that are known as Maï-Maï or Mayi-Mayi.
He was born in the village of Kisharo, about 100 km north of Goma. During two long and painful years, the boy fought with the armed group in the vicinity of the Virunga National Park.
Situated on the eastern border of the DR Congo, along 7,800 square kilometers, the park covers an area from the Virunga mountains to the Ruwenyori Mountains in Uganda. It was the first national park in Africa, created in 1925, and, five decades later, it was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco and included in the World Heritage in Danger List during the Rwandan genocide.
During the gruesome genocide in 1994, which killed almost one million Tutsi and Hutus, many Rwandans of Hutu origin fled to neighboring Congo and settled in the vicinity of Virunga, as well as numerous groups of Tutsi who crossed the border of Congo and set up camp in this vast forest region.
In the Great Lakes region, on the Congo-Rwanda-Uganda triple border, armed groups were strategically positioned between the savannahs and the dense rainforest.
While the Hutus formed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Tutsis gathered in the March 23 Movement (M23).
The years of conflict were prolonged until after having invaded and occupied Goma in 2012. The M23 was dismantled at the end of the next year by the Congolese armed forces in conjunction with the United Nations peace mission (MONUSCO).
Still, the FDLR remains active, in addition to the dozens of Mayi-Mayi groups operating in North Kivu.
Being a soldier when still a boy.
Jetaime has a name with a very particular meaning: in French, it means ‘I love you’.
As a teenager, he volunteered to join the Mayi-Mayi to fight his enemies on Congolese ground: foreign rebels such as the FDLR and the M23.
Since he did not attend school, Jetaime decided to accept the call of the community leaders of his village.
“I was very poor, I had nothing. That’s why I decided to join the militias,” recalls the young man, now 23 years old, who lives in the town of Kiwanja, in the countryside of North Kivu.
Once, Jetaime was a soldier boy. That day is left behind.
He soon realized that life in the jungle in the vicinity of Virunga would not be easy.
“We were not used to sleeping and we always had to be ready for an attack. Finding food was also difficult. We used to eat what we found on the way. We were not used to showering either,” he said.
It was common for them to be caught in late-night attacks when they were about to sleep and had to run through the jungle.
If someone got hurt, there was no medication. “This was my life in the armed group,” he remembers.
Despite the scanty data, an estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 Mayi-Mayi troops are in the two provinces of Kivu, according to a 2011 UN report.
It was at night when Jetaime and two other boys decided it was time to escape.
“We just started running away. We said we were going to get some food and we left. We ran all night.”
Five years ago, Jetaime was able to take another turn in his life.
Upon finishing his studies, he took a training course and today he works as a carpenter in his own atelier in an old house without a roof on a quiet unpaved street in the Buturande neighborhood in the suburb of Kiwanja.
Still improvised, his workshop occupies an abandoned, raw-brick house with tree trunks on the ceiling that protect from the sun and rain.
His neighbors already know him by the furniture he manufactures and leaves exposed in the street as a showcase.
Chairs, beds, tables, dressers are some type of furniture that the skilled carpenter molds with his own hands using a saw and a hammer as a help.
A new direction.
Now, the carpenter leads his life with his own reins.
“I have a job today. I’ve finished my studies and I got my life back,” says the shy but assertive Jetaime.
With the proceeds from the sale of his furniture, he helps to pay tuition so that one of his six siblings can go to school.
He does not depend on anyone. He knows how to take care of himself and, whenever he can, he sends financial help to his family.
Jetaime still plays an important role of talking to the children of Kiwanja so that they do not fall in the traps of the rebel groups.
“If you join an armed group, you will lose your family and the only thing that can happen to you in the jungle is to die.”
He says he is ready to teach anyone who wants to learn carpentry, so that they can conquer their independence and “have a future.”
Jetaime dreams of buying a piece of land with his own money, building his home and having a family with children.
“I hope I can be an example and an inspiration,” he said.