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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Former child combatants need alternatives to soldiering

UNICEF Image: UNICEF image: DR Congo child soldiers, armed with guns
© UNICEF/HQ03-0555/ LeMoyne
Child soldiers, armed with guns, stand in tall grass guarding a road outside a village near the city of Bunia in the eastern region of Ituri, DR Congo.

In Child Alert: Democratic Republic of Congo, UNICEF is highlighting the effect on children of years of conflict and unrest. This is the first of three special reports by UNICEF Correspondent David McKenzie.

LUMUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo, 26 July 2006 – Seventeen-year-old Jean lives in a modest house in Lumumbashi. In a spare room, he works with colourful cloth to expertly tailor a shirt. But Jean would much rather be making war than clothes.

“I didn’t want to leave the army,” says Jean. “They came and took me out. I was told that I was still a child and that I wasn’t supposed to be a soldier.”

He is frustrated and angry. The government gave him no compensation for leaving the army, unlike some of the adult soldiers.

The toll of war

After nearly a decade of conflict, children in DR Congo have been growing up in the midst of violence and war. According to Child Alert: Democratic Republic of Congo almost 30,000 children have been recruited to the militia and forced to terrorize the population, protect the rich resources of the country and fight proxy wars.

Jean fought in Bandaka with a militia and then was recruited for more training. He was demobilized by UNICEF some time after the 2003 peace agreement and ended up in Lumumbashi. But he is not enjoying the civilian life.

“I am a soldier,” says Jean, “I like to be a soldier because they can follow orders.”

For Jean, it is an issue of alternatives. Like many young Congolese, he has little formal schooling or employment prospects.

He is certainly not alone. The thousands of children who manage to leave armed groups are susceptible to re-recruitment. Children are also more likely to get drawn into militia groups if they are separated from their families or displaced from their homes. With over a million displaced living in the East and Central DRC, children become easy targets for militia recruitment.

Target: Peace
Though the government ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the child that deals with child soldiers, large swaths of the country are still not under government control and certain areas are inaccessible to aid organisations.

Jean is too young to rejoin the army, but that doesn’t stop him trying.

UNICEF and its partners provide substantial emergency aid including psychological counselling, transit centres for the demobilization of child soldiers, vaccinations, temporary schools in IDP camps, access to clean water and sanitation and non-food items such as cooking utensils and jerry cans and plastic sheeting for emergency shelter.

In order to continue providing emergency assistance, UNICEF has requested $93.67 million through a consolidated appeal for programmes in 2006. Currently, UNICEF’s programmes in DR Congo are underfunded by 62 per cent.

“We’re at the eve of elections on July 30,” said Anthony Bloomberg, UNICEF Representative in DR Congo. “This is an amazing historical opportunity for change and improvement in the country. We have to give all of our support to the new government, to the Congolese people, to give children a fresh start and let children be the engine of positive development into the future.”

Click here to launch the multimedia Child Alert report.





26 July, 2006:
UNICEF correspondent David McKenzie reports on the story of one former child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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21 July 2006:
Martin Bell talks about his recent mission to DR Congo as UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies.
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