Not stigmatised for being a child soldier
By Katrin Piazza
Rwanda, February 2011 - At a lake camp, one hour from Rwanda’s capital, thirty boys have come together for a three month course that offers counselling, education, recreational activities and vocational training to young men. But these are not your average young men, they used to be child soldiers in Congo. But today, thanks to the help of the Commission for Demobilisation, supported by UNICEF, these boys are on the road to living a normal life with their long lost families.
Silvain is one such boy. He has not enjoyed the comfort of a safe, loving family environment for many years now. In the turmoil of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, his parents fled with him and his elder brother across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo. After the situation had calmed down, his parents returned with his elder brother to see if all was well. Silvain, a baby at the time, was left behind in the care of an acquaintance. Neither his parents nor his brother ever returned, and today Silvain still does not know where they are.
While in Congo, he lived with a foster mother and went to school. One day when he was 14 years old, some men appeared in school. They told him and his friend – who had also been separated from his parents – that they knew their parents’ whereabouts. “Come with us and we will show you where they are.”
The next thing they knew was that they were part of an armed group.
“My life among soldiers was very hard”, says Silvain. As part of the troop leader’s escort he was in charge of ensuring that the boss’ wife had enough to eat. “Yes, I had to use my weapon to kill people, particularly when villagers refused to hand over their food. I could not bear the situation.”
One day when his commando happened to march through an area that was near the Rwandan border, Silvain immediately saw his chance to escape.“I remembered passing the area and hearing on the radio that the UN would help soldiers who wanted to come home, so I decided to tempt fate, got three of my mates together and fled.” Luckily Silvain and his friends were helped across the border and brought to this centre. Now, three months later, ten boys are busy preparing to leave. It is “integration day”, the day when parents and relatives arrive to collect their boys and take them home. The boys have packed their stuff, including a “unification kit” containing a woollen blanket, a malaria net, crockery, cooking utensils, a jerrycan to carry water and a bag of seeds.
“We don’t want families to feel the boys are a burden”, explains, Eric Muhaza from the Demobilisation Commission. “We want them to know that we help them with their re-integration.”
Silvain should have been packing to leave, but he will have to stay for the time being until his family is found. “It’s great here. I can go to school, be safe and study law. I would love to become a lawyer.”
Under its child protection programme, UNICEF supports Rwanda’s Demobilisation Commission to help boys like Silvain restart their lives. There is no accurate data on how many children are recruited to join rebel groups or armies in the Great Lakes Region.
If you would like to contact or learn more about how UNICEF supports child protection activities in Rwanda, or make a donation, please click here.