|© UNICEF DR Congo/2007/ Harneis|
|Children in the Mugunga camp outside Goma in North Kivu. During conflict, children are very vulnerable to forced recruitment by militias.|
By Blue Chevigny
NORTH KIVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 18 September 2007 – This is an era of extreme difficulty for the people of DR Congo. Between 300,000 to 350,000 people have been displaced since November 2006. In the last few weeks, the situation has gone from bad to worse with approximately 60,000 people newly displaced from their homes around North Kivu. In unstable circumstances like these, children are especially vulnerable to exploitation.
“Separation of children from the parents always puts children at risk,” says UNICEF’s Chief of Field Operations for DR Congo Julien Harneis. “Then you’ve got the creation of spontaneous camps, which leads to measles, cholera and the recruitment of children into armed groups.”
The challenges posed by forced child recruitment are vast. Children are taken by militias against their will and used as porters and fighters or, in the case of girls, for sexual exploitation. There is also great risk, of course, of injury and death from violence and battle.
Falling prey to re-recruitment
“We have a report of 54 cases of children recruited northeast of here and to the west we’ve heard that there’s forced recruitment of all males over the age of fifteen,” says Mr. Harneis. “In the last couple of weeks, we believe that hundreds of children have been recruited into militias, which brings the total number of cases to well over a thousand.”
Upwards of 8,000 children have been separated from militias. In most cases, these former child soldiers are returned to their communities of origin. However, Mr. Harneis says, for many ex-soldiers the story does not end there. Many fall prey to re-recruitment or banditry.
“Eventually, they will get separated from the armed groups. But then they face issues related to alienation from their community. These children haven’t been educated and their skills aren’t appropriate to civilian life.”
|© UNICEF DR Congo/2007/ Harneis|
|Measles is possibly the biggest killer of children in emergencies. Crowded camps with many children not vaccinated are very vulnerable to sudden epidemics.|
UNICEF is addressing these problems by supporting a comprehensive reintegration programme for 5,500 former child soldiers who’ve already returned to their community. Unfortunately, due to current intense fighting, the environment is too insecure in many parts of North Kivu to implement the programme.
The organization and its partners are also stepping up efforts to provide much needed vaccinations, nutritional supplements, water and sanitation aids and shelter to the newly displaced people now living in camps and makeshift shelters.
‘A peaceful solution must be found’
Unfortunately, it is currently impossible to be sure how many children are at risk for being re-recruited once they are removed from the armed groups.
“Several hundred children have been recruited in the last couple of weeks,” says Mr. Harneis. “How many of them have been re-recruited? We don’t have access to these areas, so we cannot ascertain at the moment the exact origin of these recruits. What we do know is that about 5,500 children in the area have previously been in armed groups – and they are all at risk for re-recruitment.”
The bottom line, Mr. Harneis says, is that the hard work of UNICEF and its partners in areas such as health, water and sanitation and protection, can only reach so far considering the current instability in the country.
“The most important thing for North Kivu is peace and security," says Mr. Harneis. "As long as there are armed groups here there’s going to be risk of disease and recruitment of children. There needs to be a political solution. A peaceful and diplomatic solution must be found to what’s going on here.”
UNICEF Chief of Field Operations in DR Congo Julien Harneis gives UNICEF Radio an up to date assessment of the situation for vulnerable children in the conflict-ridden country.
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