|© UNICEF video|
|UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde F. Johnson interacts with children in a camp for people displaced by violence in eastern DR Congo.|
NEW YORK, USA, 3 March 2009 – UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde F. Johnson has urged armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to release all children associated with the conflict.
Ms. Johnson visited eastern DR Congo last week as joint operations between Congolese and Rwandan troops drew to a close there. Despite a fragile peace that is now in place, years of conflict in the volatile region have caused massive suffering and gross violations of children’s rights.
“The recent developments in eastern DRC provide an unprecedented opportunity to free all children from armed groups,” said Ms. Johnson. “Not one child should be integrated into the Congolese armed forces or police units in the process. We call for a clear timetable for the voluntary release of all children.”
|© UNICEF video|
|Children catch up with their studies at a UNICEF-supported school in the town of Rutshuru, eastern DR Congo, where all the students are from displaced families.|
30,000 children demobilized
Ms. Johnson visited a UNICEF-supported school where all the students are from families that have been displaced by conflict. As a consequence, the children are struggling to catch up with their schooling.
Speaking in Swahili, the local language, Ms. Johnson asked the children about their experiences. “The fighting was so close to our homes. People were dying and we had no food, so we ran away from the rebels,” Gaboua, 14, told her.
Since 2004, UNICEF has assisted in demobilizing and reintegrating about 30,000 Congolese children forced to participate in the conflict. However, an estimated 3,500 are still with armed groups.
‘Heal Africa’ clinic
In Goma, Ms. Johnson, visited the ‘Heal Africa’ clinic, where victims of rape and sexual abuse are treated and counselled. She spoke to victims and to their doctors and nurses.
Ms. Johnson commended the government’s efforts to end hostilities in the region but called for an end to impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence. She left the eastern DR Congo expressing optimism, but – like all the families who fled their homes and are still living in camps – acknowledged that it was too soon to tell whether peace will take hold.
DR Congo crisis
Continued insecurity hinders aid to displaced families in DR Congo