Children on the Front Lines in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

Children on the Front Lines in the Democratic Republic of Congo

September 27, 2007

With close to four million deaths, the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is known to be the world’s deadliest since World War II. As a nation that suffered decades of dictatorship, followed by a war that involved six other African countries, the DRC today is enduring one of the most dangerous and protracted conflicts in the world. And it is the children of the DRC who are its primary victims.

After Mobutu Sese Seku, the dictator of Zaire (as the DRC was previously known) was ousted in 1997, the DRC faced another immediate struggle: the influx of millions of refugees from Rwanda fleeing the genocide. While many of these refugees were fleeing violence, many others were soldiers and conspirators who had perpetrated war crimes in Rwanda. As allegiances crumbled and others re-formed, the DRC, rich in mineral resources, became the battlefield for “Africa’s World War.” The war drew in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Congolese rebels, who fought against Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and the Congolese government. A peace deal and transitional government, established in 2003, has not halted the ongoing violence or threat of civil war.

This bloody and protracted conflict found a new resource to use in battle: children. Because the war caused a breakdown of families, children were more vulnerable to recruitment. Some were forcibly conscripted, while others did so voluntarily in order to obtain food or seek revenge for deaths in their families. It is currently estimated that 30,000 children are taking an active part in combat or are attached to armed groups.

Boys are generally targeted to participate in armed combat, and due to a proliferation of small arms (millions are currently in circulation) it is easy to arm children as young as 10 years old. Reports abound of young boys, recruited into rebel groups after the murder of their families, receiving arms without training and being forced to kill perceived enemies. Often, if a child refuses to be an accomplice in murder, he is shot and killed as a warning to other child soldiers. Boys are also sometimes subjected to sexual abuse by their superiors.

Women and young girls are recruited forcibly into armies, where they are used as soldiers or held in captivity as sex slaves. Sex slaves are more often than not subjected to extreme brutality, suffering not only from rape but by accompanying emotional trauma, unwanted pregnancy and STIs including HIV/AIDS. Because of a lack of medical services throughout the DRC, they are often left on their own, stigmatized by their communities and forced to beg for a living. No age group is immune to sexual violence: rape victims have been reported from the age of four months to 84.

American Jewish World Service supports local efforts to help child soldiers reintegrate peacefully into society, through a process known as DDR: Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration. Without proper DDR, a peace on paper can never become a peace in reality.

One of AJWS’ project partners in the DRC is a local community-based organization called Ajedi-Ka. The organization’s primary focus is the identification, demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers: this includes advocacy for the cessation of the use of child soldiers, prevention of child soldier recruitment and follow-up services to reintegrate child soldiers. Ajedi-Ka not only demobilizes and reintegrates child soldiers, but helps these children to become trainers and advocates for transitioning other children back into society. Ajedi-Ka is also active on the world stage, speaking on behalf of child soldiers. Most recently, at the International Criminal Court, Ajedi-Ka assisted in the conviction of a Congolese leader found guilty of forced conscription of children.

Recent elections offered a glimmer of hope to the troubled DRC. On July 30, 2006, Congolese gathered for the country’s first democratic elections in over 40 years, which were carried out in a relatively peaceful and orderly manner. There have been some reports of vote rigging and fraud; incumbent President Joseph Kabila currently leads the elections with approximately 55% of the vote.

But will democratic elections truly alter the DRC? Unfortunately, while the international community devoted an enormous amount of money and resources toward overseeing a peaceful and democratic election, the DRC’s humanitarian needs remain urgent and overlooked. The DRC has a child mortality rate 34 times that of developed countries and 1.66 million people remain displaced as a result of the ongoing violence. Food aid has been cut in half and entire families continue to die from preventable diseases. Until these issues are addressed, the desperation that drives this conflict is unlikely to go away.

Update, August 30, 2006

Results of the DRC elections have been calculated, with incumbent Joseph Kabila receiving 45% of the national vote - just short of the 50% majority needed to win the presidency. Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba came second, with about 20%, concentrated mostly in the capital, Kinshasa.

Clashes in Kinshasa erupted on Sunday, August 27 between loyalists supporting the opposing candidates. Twenty-three people were killed and 43 injured in armed clashes that involved grenades, machine guns, and tanks. On Monday, August 28, representatives of Kabila and Bemba signed a cessation of hostility accord, brokered by officials of the UN and European peace missions in the DRC.

A run-off election will be held in October.