|© UNICEF video|
|Masika (not her real name) outside a UNICEF-supported reintegration centre in Goma that has helped more than 1,500 former child soldiers return to civilian life.|
By Bent Jorgen Perlmutt
A decade after the United Nations issued a landmark report on children affected by armed conflict, the context of conflict has changed dramatically. A strategic review of the Graça Machel report is now under way to address this issue for the next 10 years. Here is one of a series of stories testifying to the importance of that review, ‘Machel Plus 10’.
GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 11 October 2007 – Masika (not her real name) was only 13 when she decided to join the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) militia in eastern DR Congo. She joined because her mother had recently died. She also liked the uniforms the soldiers were wearing.
“Sometimes you think that you can just put on some new clothes and you’ll be smart too,” she said recently, recalling her thinking five years ago.
Sent to reintegration centre
Masika enlisted as an assistant to her brother, a captain in the RCD, and made her way up the ranks to become an assistant lieutenant. She had her own squad of 12 other female soldiers fighting under General Laurent Nkunda, notorious for his reliance on child combatants.
After five years, Masika decided to flee. “Can you imagine what it’s like … fighting with people whose blood was the same as yours?” she asked. She went to a ‘brassage’ camp, where soldiers from militia groups are absorbed into the national army.
When the officials there learned that she was under 18, they sent her to a UNICEF-supported reintegration centre for children associated with armed groups.
Skills for a future
The Centre de Transit et Orientation (CTO) in the northern city of Goma houses around 70 children at any one time and has a staff of some 30 teachers, mentors, counselors and administrators who work to reintegrate these children with their families and communities.
CTO is just one of five such centres around Goma that have taken in as many as 1,500 children since 2004. The peace accord signed that year made possible the demobilization of up to 17,000 child soldiers nationwide – most of whom have since been reunited with their families.
Masika also hoped to return to her family but didn’t want to go home without skills. She spent six months at the centre, learning to read, write and sew. Only then did she contact her family. Her father suggested it was best that she live far away from their village because of the shame and possible danger her status as a soldier might bring the family.
Still far from secure
“You can never forget people who have rescued you from such a life,” Masika said, referring to those who helped her abandon her uniform. But Masika’s future, like that of thousands of her peers, is far from secure.
“As for us demobilized child soldiers, even if we have our papers, we don’t know where to go,” she said. “I’m always thinking about where I can go. But for now there’s nowhere.”
Indeed, Masika is hopeful that her family will accept her back one day. But she also fears that if she returns to her village she could be forcibly recruited by the RCD, which in recent months has staged numerous raids on schools and villages to abduct children into its forces.
Machel plus 10
Former child soldier reclaims his life in DR Congo [with video]
Trading guns for textbooks in Southern Sudan [with video]
Masika’s story: Child combatant recalls army life [with video]
Children and armed conflict: Graça Machel study 10-year strategic review
(external link, opens in a new window)