|© UNICEF DR Congo/2012|
|A boy stands in the Centre pour Transit et Orientation (CTO), a demobilization centre in Bukavu, DR Congo.|
By Cornelia Walther
BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 16 January 2012 – “I was 13 years old when the rebels came to my village. They didn’t ask questions. ‘Take your jacket and come, or we kill you,’” recounts Christian, 16.* “I stayed with them for three years, no thinking, just functioning.”
Since 1998, more than 5.4 million people in DR Congo have been killed by war or disease, according to the International Rescue Committee. And in times of conflict or instability, children are the most vulnerable: They are victims of sexual assault, they lose their families and homes as a consequence of displacement, and they are too often forced into combat.
Christian was demobilized when his group was integrated into the national army, part of an ongoing pacification process. But his ordeal was far from over – children associated with armed forces or groups face steep challenges reintegrating into civilian life, including social stigma and the psychological distress of having been abducted, abused or otherwise compelled to participate in conflict.
“I try to forget what my hands have done,” he said.
Demobilization centres are helping children in these situations recover from their experiences and return to their communities. As of early January 2012, 101 children between ages 11 and 17 were living in the Centre pour Transit et Orientation (CTO) in Bukavu, South Kivu, following their demobilization from armed forces or groups. The center is managed by Bureau pour le Volontariat au service de l'Enfance et de la Santé (BVES), a Congolese association and UNICEF partner.
|© UNICEF DR Congo/2012|
|“Every day when a child can be saved is a successful day,” said Murhabazi Namegabe, director of Bureau pour le Volontariat au service de l'Enfance et de la Santé in Bukavu.|
After arriving at the CTO, children undergo psychosocial treatment and get access to formal education or professional training. Slowly, they learn to accept themselves and others, despite the horrors they have experienced.
“For several months I could barely eat, nor sleep and didn’t talk to anyone. All those images went through my head, around and around,” said Ghesmit, 17. “But today, I can greet people, and I have become a really good mechanic.”
In peer groups, the children discuss their pasts and perspectives.
“There are days when it’s really hard to be who I am, but there are others when I am just happy,” Ghesmit said.
“The situation that brought them into an armed group has not changed. It’s important that they have a clear project for their life in this context,” explains Murhabazi Namegabe, Director of BVES in Bukavu. “We want them to build dreams, realistically.”
“The commander took me by force when I was 15, while I was trying to flee with my younger brother,” said Bora, 16. She is one of five girls at the centre. All demobilized girls are brought to Pantzi Hospital, a medical center that collaborates with UNICEF on the treatment of survivors of sexual violence.
“Today my son is 1 year old,” she said. “I want to study and go to university one day.”
Towards a brighter future
While the children acquire new skills and peace of mind, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) searches for their families – not an easy task.
“Many children come from areas where fighting continues,“ said Mr. Namegabe, which means “they are at risk of new enrollment. Others do not want to return home because they are ashamed of what they have done. And finally, there are families who refuse to take their children back – because they are afraid of what they have become.
At all stages of demobilization and reintegration, partnerships are crucial. UNICEF provides funding and technical support, the ICRC ensures medication and family tracing, and the World Food Programs delivers food to the CTO. In remote areas, foster families host youth close to their areas of origin, and local volunteers visit reintegrated children on a monthly basis to identify difficulties returning to normal life.
“By doing something for the future of these youngsters, we brighten the future of this country,” said Berta Travieso, Head of UNICEF Operations in South Kivu.
*All children’s names have been changed to protect their identities.