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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Maisha’s story: Former child soldier reclaims his life in DR Congo

© UNICEF video
At 15, Maisha (not his real name) joined the Mayi-Mayi militia as an intelligence agent in DR Congo; he has since left the armed group and become a carpenter, husband and father.

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’, scheduled for launch on 17 October.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 16 October 2007 – Maisha (not his real name) was 15 when he joined the Mayi-Mayi militia, a loose coalition of Congolese soldiers that emerged a decade ago in opposition to the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD).

According to Jason Stearns, a Nairobi-based senior analyst in the International Crisis Group, children make up 40 to 50 per cent of the militia forces.

The Mayi-Mayi recruit children through force or manipulation. They also play on superstition to increase their ranks. ‘Mayi’ is a Swahili word for water, and the Mayi-Mayi say that magic powers turn bullets directed at them to water. They tell children that they, too, will become indestructible and can protect their families and communities from invaders.

Fleeing from violence

Maisha joined for all these reasons. He liked to quote the Mayi-Mayi motto: ‘Tunafia nchi yetu’ (We die for our country).

As one of the brightest students in his class, Maisha was a good candidate for intelligence work. He was a Mayi-Mayi spy for over a year, but after seeing many of his friends killed and his own village burned, he decided to flee. He subsequently enrolled in the Centre pour Transit et Orientation (CTO), a UNICEF-sponsored reintegration centre for children associated with armed groups.

After six months among former combatants at CTO, Maisha began an apprenticeship in which he learned carpentry, mechanics and masonry. Today he has an internship at the top carpentry firm in Goma.

© UNICEF video
Youths recruited as soldiers in DR Congo, one of at least 18 countries where children are regularly used in situations of armed conflict.

Uncertain futures for many

Not all former combatants are able to right their lives as successfully as Maisha has done, however. Many child soldiers face a more difficult reintegration into society, because of either a lack of education or traumatic psychological damage.

In eastern Congo alone, there are an estimated 30,000 children associated with armed groups. As Maisha did, most of them fill non-combatant positions such as spies, porters, cooks, domestic servants and sexual slaves.

Although many have now gone through a reintegration process, hundreds are still being recruited every day by both the Mayi-Mayi and the RCD.

‘Machel plus 10’

Evaluating the needs of child combatants is part of an ongoing review of the landmark study on children and armed conflict issued more than a decade ago by the United Nations. Authored by Graça Machel in 1996, the report identified demobilization and reintegration programmes for children as important actions for the international community to take.

The context of conflict has changed dramatically in the decade since the Machel report. While there has been significant progress in addressing the issue of child recruitment, unacceptable numbers of boys and girls continue to serve as porters, cooks, messengers and fighters, as well as for sexual purposes, in armed conflicts in at least 18 countries.

To further protect the rights of children in conflict over the next decade, the ‘Machel plus 10’ review, scheduled to be launched at events in New York tomorrow, recommends:

  • Universal adherence to international norms
  • Ending impunity for violations against children
  • Promoting justice for children
  • And supporting inclusive strategies for the reintegration of children associated with armed groups.




Watch the story of ‘Maisha’, who was only 15 when he joined the Mayi-Mayi militia in DR Congo and was later reintegrated into society.
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