Rehabilitating Child Soldiers: A Conversation with Bukeni Tete Waruzi

 

Rehabilitating Child Soldiers: A Conversation with Bukeni Tete Waruzi

October 9, 2007

Bukeni Tete Waruzi is the executive director of AJEDI-Ka. AJEDI-Ka, an AJWS grantee since 2006, is a local organization working in the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). AJEDI-Ka focuses on the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers.

Waruzi created AJEDI-Ka while he was a university student. Mired by war, the province where he lived also headquartered a rebel group that was kidnapping and recruiting children to join militias.

Waruzi meets with rebel commanders, negotiates the release of child soldiers and rehabilitates children once they have left the militia groups. Through AJEDI-Ka’s transit center, children are given food, psycho-social counseling and a roof over their heads. Finally, AJEDI-Ka reunites children with their families and communities, working to ensure mutual trust and support between these groups. Many former child soldiers are now volunteers, staff and members of AJEDI-Ka.

Here, Waruzi speaks about the experience of youth in war, and the difficulties in making a soldier a child once more.

In the bush, both boys and girls are trained as soldiers - combatants, bodyguards, cooks, informants, spies.

Boys are trained in how to cause violence and how to alter their minds – they have to smoke marijuana, they have to drink a lot of beer. They learn how to manipulate weapons, how to use knives, how to use rope, how to forcibly kill someone. They are fully trained as soldiers to cause violence, in order to be more dangerous.

The girls are sexually abused, not only by the commanders, but by all of the group. That makes it very complicated for girls when they have to go back home, since some of them have babies. These babies are not really recognized or accepted by their communities. Basically, they don’t have an identity, because their mothers can’t say, “I know the father of my baby.”

When we first demobilize the children, we take them to a transit center. We provide them with accommodation and food, we try to explore their story and decide, according to the child’s experience, what would be good for him.

Then we start tracing the family. We do another negotiation with the family, because some families are very scared. They don’t trust their children anymore; they think they are more violent. They are scared of their children, very frightened.

We also cooperate with local leaders, for example churches and traditional chiefs. We ask them to contribute to the reconciliation of these children with their community. They try to prepare the community to welcome the child, and we prepare the child to go back into the community.

But the problem is, while at home, you can imagine these children have a lot of problems, in terms of adaptation to new life again, the civilian life.

It’s not just a matter of taking the child from the camp to the transit center; it’s not just a matter of taking him from the transit center to his community. When the child is back in the community, you must continue doing something for him. These processes are linked. If you do nothing, he will be tempted to go back into the camp. We have to really think and understand why some children like the military life.

The lack of opportunity in the community is the key reason for re-recruitment. The villages are full of many young people and children, and they don’t have many opportunities. They need to go to school; they need to play soccer; they need to be busy in the community. Given the lack of infrastructure in the community, it makes reintegration more difficult. That’s why some of the children are tempted to go back to the camp, since they find nothing at home.

I think peace and sustainable support is very important to ensure that these children won’t go back again. When there’s sustainable means to support reintegration, these children will be busy at home. And when you have peace, you hope that the children won’t be re-recruited again, because there’s no reason to go back into the camp.

Last year, we had our first “democratic” elections since independence from Belgian colonialism. But elections don’t mean stability when you apply it to Congo. The election was held last year, but there’s no stability. I think the DRC is still really far away from long-term, or even short-time, stability. We hope that the involvement of the international community can help the DRC to build a strong nation.

I think that as an African, as a Congolese, this is my contribution to my community: trying to protect our children. I don’t have money to give them, I don’t have power, but if I can save the life of one or two children, that is my contribution to my community. I am happy with that and I think that it may inspire other Africans. Four million people have died as a result of the conflict in the Congo. It’s time to think about doing as much as we can for ourselves.

AJWS provides general support to AJEDI-Ka to prevent the recruitment of children into armed conflict and to reintegrate former child soldiers. AJWS is also assisting AJEDI-KA in its awareness-raising campaign on HIV/AIDS in the DRC. With AJWS support, AJEDI-Ka has released a video in partnership with WITNESS on HIV/AIDS. The video will be screened in villages around the eastern DRC to sensitize communities about HIV/AIDS.