David slays his Goliath in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. . . One algebra problem at a time
David is 16 years old and believes he has already slain one Goliath in his life. “My first Goliath was surviving the war against Mobutu”, he says. “I had to fight for seven months and I am still alive. But I was not alone in the battle – there were many other children who had been recruited to fight just like me. The Goliath I face now is going to be more difficult to beat, because I am facing him alone. But, I believe I will win if I concentrate and work hard enough.”
Over the past few years, it is estimated that over 20,000 children – many of them boys like David, but girls as well – have been recruited into combat by all parties to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In some cases, children make up an estimated 35 per cent of the troops and they often fight on the front lines – forced to participate in horrific violence and to perform the most dangerous of tasks. They are also often used as sexual and domestic slaves. Countless Congolese boys and girls have been killed or maimed in combat. Others survived but, like David, face a very uncertain future.
“I was 12 years old and was in my class at school when we heard the bullets and gunfire”, says David. “They were fighting in my town of Uvira, South Kivu Province. The teacher told us all to lie down on the ground and he did, too. We hid in the classroom for a long time until there was a lull in the fighting. Then we all ran in different directions – some toward the houses, others to the forest to hide. I ran to my home to be with my parents and my brothers but no one was there when I arrived. My parents and brothers had already run away,” he continues. “At least, that’s what I hope happened to them.”
“Along with lots of other children in the village I was forced to join the armed forces. We were all told that we could fight to liberate our country or we be shot dead. I was too scared to die and did not know where my family was or what to do, so I had to join”, explains David. “For two months, new recruits like me were put through military training and discipline exercises. Then, we were sent to the front lines to fight.”
Forced into combat
Like David, most children associated with armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have no other choice but to join. If they refuse they face the threat of serious harm, often death, to their families or themselves. Other children living in poverty, separated from their parents, displaced by war or lacking the option of going to school, join because they feel they have no better alternative. Recruitment of both boys and girls continues to this day, despite the signing of peace accords. Fighting, looting and pillaging still occurs on a daily basis, particularly in the Ituri District and in the North Kivu, South Kivu and Maniema Provinces in the eastern part of the country.
“At first, I was very scared, but I had a Kalashnikov rifle and it was just a question of fighting and shooting or being shot at and killed. We had to fight from Uvira all the way here to Kinshasa. It took seven months,” says David, who covered the distance hungry, tired, scared – and mostly on foot.
“When we would come upon a village, we would surround it and then attack. We took the village boys with us to fight. By then, it seemed okay to me to take other children, because that was what happened to me”, says David. “Now, I know that it wasn’t right, but we also had no choice because they would kill us if we didn’t obey orders immediately. And we were given drugs to make us brave and strong. ”
Armed groups recruit children and force them to take part in horrific violence because they are easier to threaten and manipulate than adults. The recruitment of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo began to strongly emerge during intensive fighting between 1996-1997, despite the fact that the recruitment of anyone under 18 is illegal. The recruitment and use of children by armed groups also violates article 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the terms of its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
“I saw many people killed,” says David. “It was like being a prisoner. I remembered wishing I was back home, going to school, but that wasn’t possible in the jungle – there it was all about fighting and surviving. I was frustrated and angry thinking that I would never see my family and would never have the chance to go to school again. But then, after we had reached Kinshasa, I felt proud to have been part of the victory. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that only a few would benefit from the victory. For the rest of us, it had just been a waste of our time and our lives and I had no hopes for my future.”
A return to normalcy
The first demobilization of children in the government-controlled territories was initiated in December 2001. David was among the first of the 207 children demobilized, who then took their first steps towards reintegration while staying at the Kimwenza Transit Centre. Like David, the majority came from the eastern region of the country. At Kimwenza, UNICEF helped provide psychosocial and medical care, basic education including life skills, and family tracing and reunification activities for the children until September 2002. During that time, 95 per cent of the children wrote letters to make contact with their families; only 66 per cent got a response. David was among the latter.
A much lower percentage were lucky enough to be reunited with their families. Family tracing remains difficult due to massive population displacements and a high death toll. Meanwhile reunification is often impossible due to ongoing insecurity and fighting in the eastern part of the country. This is further exacerbated by the fear of reprisals and the risk of re-recruitment. “I feel very alone”, says David. “I don’t know if my mother and father are still alive or where they are. Maybe they were killed the day of the attack.” He looks down at his feet.
“It was very hard for me in the beginning because I had no idea what to do. I had no weapon any more and no family here in Kinshasa”, says David. “But I knew that if I was to have a future, I would have to go back to school. Now, I am midway through my last grade of secondary school, and if I pass my exams in July 2004, I will receive my high school diploma. I like studying physics and algebra – they are my favourite subjects. Lots of my friends find these subjects too difficult, but I enjoy them,” he says proudly, opening his neatly written notebook with his algebra homework.
“I study every day and I don’t get mixed up with girlfriends, because that would distract me and I have no time to waste – everything in due course! I first need to study and then get a job and then I can have time for a girlfriend or a wife – but not before. I study very hard every night. If I pass my high school exams, I may have a chance to go to university if I don’t, I don’t know what will become of me.
“What’s my Goliath these days? Studying hard so that I will pass my exams!”, says David. “Now, I’m really fighting for my own future. They say the pen is mightier than the sword… it’s not easy, but I know I have no choice.
“Without an education, you are never really accepted into society, you won’t get a good job, you won’t be able to take care of your wife and you won’t have a good future. Studying is the only way out for me. And I want my parents to be proud of me … whenever I find them again.”