“Today I am self-employed and I want to continue developing in my profession.”
A hair clipper in one hand and a fine-tooth comb in the other. These are the weapons Jeannot Kasereka uses to survive.
Today he is a hairdresser and has his own salon on one of the busy streets of Kiwanja in the Rutshuru district, 70 km north of Goma.
Its salon of no more than 4m² has its walls filled with bright lights, posters with samples of haircuts, and all types of colorful decoration. A portable fan is his faithful companion along with a battery radio.
Jeannot is 18 years old and recalls exactly what happened the day when the armed group M23 occupied Rutshuru.
While working on a small food store, he witnessed all the armed action on the streets.
He was 14 when he saw the M23 of Tutsi origin entering the city.
“I knew they would get us by force.” They were looking for boys to take them to the battlefield.
Refusing to join a group that he considered a foreigner, Jeannot then decided to enlist in a communal Mayi-Mayi group called Popular Front for Democracy (PFD) to combat the foreign threat.
He spent three years in the forest near Virunga National Park, fighting for the militia led by a chief known in the region and self-titled Colonel Shetani Kakule Muhima.
Commonly nicknamed ‘Satan’, he became known for his explosive and aggressive temperament.
“When I joined Mayi-Mayi, life was very difficult,” he recalls.
Jeannot was in charge of two important tasks: carrying out robberies and looting and guarding the weapons arsenal.
In 2012, North Kivu province was the scene of intense conflicts between the M23 rebel group and the Congolese armed forces and communal self-defense militias.
At that time, the high level of violence displaced 900,000 people who had to leave their houses in a hurry.
About 20,000 people – including 600 military personnel (FARDC) – fled to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.
The kidnapping and forced recruitment of children to join the ranks of armed groups were a reality. It was practically the only fait of the families who lived in the countryside villages.
“I decided to leave when I heard that the M23 had fallen. I realized that I did not have to keep fighting anymore,” he said.
He was among the group of 65 children who fled.
Jeannot was 16 years old and was the oldest boy to lead the group on the run.
The strategy was to flee towards the village of Vitshumbi and surrender to a UN outpost.
The M23 was dismantled in November 2013.
Ever since he escaped, his life has changed.
Jeannot opened a small business in Kiwanja with the help of a local non-profit organization that received boys who had fought in armed groups in Rutshuru and offered vocational courses.
In a tiny space, he set up a salon and he offers masculine and feminine haircuts.
He is still trying to forget the days of conflict.
Jeannot has his own instruments of work and does not depend on employers.
“I’m self-employed. I bought a radio to listen to music while I work. I hope I can get more customers.”
Jeannot is an example of success. He wants to inspire more children to leave the armed struggle.
“My life has changed. I want to be an inspiration to the boys. Those are choices that each one can make. Everyone can find their own way.”