Queen Alphonsine is 18 years old. She lives in the Quartier Majengo, on the poor suburb of Goma.
Her introverted and timid voice reflects the fear and insecurity of her life.
Her dream is to resume her studies. It will not be long before she can finish high school, but her parents cannot afford the cost of school fees, she laments.
Since returning from the jungle, Queen has lived in ostracism.
At age 13, she decided to go to the jungle in a mountainous area in Masisi Territory, in North Kivu.
The expression “going to the jungle” means joining an armed group.
For two years, she fought in the ranks of the People’s Alliance for Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS).
This Congolese militia is fed on the anti-Rwandan rivalry, defending its tribal community Hunde that controls zones some kilometers away to the north of Goma.
Unlike many girls, Queen was not kidnapped or forced to be recruited. She enlisted herself.
“I was convinced by other colleagues in my community to join the group. They told me that I would be a soldier, and I liked the idea,” she admitted.
“I knew I would go into combat. I wanted to learn how to use a gun.”
Some of her tasks were to cook and serve food to the soldiers.
It took her three months to learn how to use a rifle.
When they needed her in the front line, she held the rifle and fought.
“I did not know against who or why,” she admitted.
The danger was imminent, and it came from all sides.
The group self-called APCLS was surrounded by other militias such as the Mayi-Mayi Cheka of Nyanga ethnic origin who controlled the Walikale Territory, besides the Rwandan Democratic Forces of Liberation (FDLR) of Hutu origin and the Nyatura militia formed by Hutu Congolese soldiers.
When asked if she feared being killed, she said that her fear was chased away when her superiors offered her a talisman for protection.
“I was protected by the ancestral powers. No one could kill me.” The amulet she wore hanging from her neck was her only safety guarantee.
After two years in the jungle, a government call urging the rebels to stop the fighting caused many to release their fighters.
Queen was released in 2014.
Her freedom, however, did not translate into a communal reception or an effective social reintegration.
Life in the jungle was not so different from the one she had in her community. Poverty was extreme.
Being a child soldier inflicted a profound stigma.
She was not accepted by her family. Her community has never received her back.
“People are afraid of me.”
Queen’s story reflects the dark side that involves rejection and stigma that affect girls who have joined armed groups in the Congo.
“They know I’ve been in an armed group and they all fear me now. I have no friends,” she laments.
Being a soldier girl is not the same as being a soldier boy.
It is not easy to free girls who are in armed groups.
Since the adoption of the Child Protection Act in 2009, military recruitment of children has been criminalized in the DRC.
A UN report showed that between 2009 and 2015, only 7% of children who were demobilized from armed groups were girls – that is, 600 out of a total of 8,546. Half of the girls were under the age of 15 when they were recruited.
Like Queen, a quarter of them said they had integrated the armed groups because they had experienced pressure from family members and acquaintances.
Most girls enter as cooks, housewives, loaders, soldiers’ wives. There is still a part that fight.
Recruitment of girls is a recurring phenomenon, but it is difficult to pinpoint the number.
There are estimates indicating that girls make up 30 to 40 percent of child soldiers.
When Queen was released, she was sheltered by an NGO in Goma for a month before being sent home.
However, the reality is that many of them are excluded by their families when they try to return home.
Apart from the difficulties of the jungle, rejection has been the main cause of emotional distress in girls.
They are no longer seen as women who must be respected. They lose their value.
Not being accepted into their own community leaves them in an even more vulnerable condition.
Furthermore, demobilization programs for ex-combatants do not include the gender issue or try to mediate the integration with families.
Queen was excluded. Her life in the community became unbearable.
At age 16, she decided to leave and seek a shelter in a slum in the suburbs of Goma where no one knows her or judges her by her past.
She still hopes that one day she can afford to pay for her studies.
“I just wish I could go to school. People think I’ve become a brutish person, but I’ll never fight again. I am a person like any other.”