He was 12 when he joined the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), following his father’s footsteps, a high-ranked soldier of this rebel group that operates in eastern DR Congo.
This group puts together Congolese men of Hutu origin and former soldiers responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The FDLR, among other armed groups, has been at the epicenter of two decades of violence in the country.
A 17-year-old boy with short stature, fragile look, lost eyes, and a shaky voice. This was Tukundu five years after fighting for FDLR.
His father, a Rwandan soldier loyal to Hutu forces during the genocide that swept Rwanda in 1994, had fled to the neighboring Congo.
The boy was born in Miriki, located 200 km north of Goma. Over the course of five years, Tukundu lived in the jungle in Masisi territory, in North Kivu province, 80 km northwest of the capital Goma.
He did not know what he was fighting for, against whom, or for what ideals. He never had a single chance to learn how to read or write.
He has never sat on a school desk or been to a classroom. His only reference was his father, his weapons, and his jungle.
And this was the way that Tukundu grew up and fought along with an estimate of other two thousand FDLR fighters operating in the country.
“As my father was from the FDLR, I followed him. We fought for our survival and to have a place to exist. When they needed me, I went into combat”, he said.
One day, between late March and April 2017, the boy was caught on the battlefield by the Congolese armed forces.
Tukundu never chose to run away or thought that he could have a life different from the one he had in the jungle. “My goal was not to leave. That was my life and there I was”, he said.
But a slip had him captured by the Congolese army, the FARDC. As usual, when child combatants are captured, they cannot be killed, but rather be taken to the UN.
There, the process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of combatants would begin. The so-called DDR is a component of the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO).
There had been no more than a week since Tukundu had arrived under the Fight-Against-Misery Support Program (PAMI), a Congolese NGO that offers hospitality to former child soldiers.
Until that moment, his life consisted of combat and survival. His toys had been rifles and ammunition.
Tukundu was a ‘kadogo’ who never thought of running away. ‘Kadogo’, in Swahili, means ‘the little ones’, and this is how soldier boys are vulgarly called in DR Congo.
Lonely in a corner with a vacant, distant gaze, the boy casts glances of curiosity and timidity over the other boys around him. Everyone there had been a ‘kadogo’, boys who had lost their innocence and suffered traumas.
Tukundu only speaks Kinyarwanda, language of Rwanda. There, nobody understands it. They are all Congolese who mostly speak Swahili and local languages.
At the PAMI shelter, twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, about 40 boys from 8 to 17 years old get together to play Capoeira. They form a circle and follow, with attentive eyes, the movements and songs taught by the Capoeira teachers.
No matter the ethnicity, community, language, or in whatever armed group they fought. There, they all relive their playful childhood moments and try to leave behind a fighting past.
Everything is new to Tukundu. He still does not understand what he is doing in the shelter and why so many other boys who do not speak his language are there for.
The only thing he realizes is that, when everyone gets together, what unites them is the sound of drums, rattle, and berimbau.
Tukundu does not know that this is Capoeira. He is still shy, but he stares curiously in the distance.
“Oh, is that called Capoeira?”, he asks when asked if he would ever be interested in attending classes where the other boys meet in a circle.
“I saw them playing. It even seemed cool. Maybe one day I can make friends in this Capoeira”, he commented.
Tukundu spends most of his time just watching, quiet and alone.
He does not know what the future holds for him. He only hopes to be able to find his mother and a sister who once abandoned his father and returned to Rwanda. His father died some years before, in combat.
The only phone number he had from his mother no longer exists. “I just keep waiting.”