DR Congo province in push to save child soldiers
The United Nations has several ongoing efforts to stop the enlistment of children in the troubled country but this is the first grassroots campaign in the southeastern Katanga province.
Launched on April 1, the initiative led by Congolese non-governmental organisation Action Against Poverty (ACP) targets children, the broader population and the armed movements themselves.
Across the DR Congo – a potentially wealthy, resource-rich nation ravaged by successive wars from 1996 to 2003 and still highly volatile in the east – thousands of children are believed to have been recruited into militias.
The UN Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates that 4 500 children serve in militias across the vast nation, while "more than 1 500 children are currently being used by armed forces or groups in Katanga".
"Often, it's children who emerged from these armed forces and groups and returned to their community who bear witness to the tricks that armed groups use to attract youths. There are only rare cases of fully voluntary enlistment," says Anna Paola Favero, a child protection officer with Unicef.
The proportion of girls enlisting is "particularly worrying", Unicef adds.
Triangle of Death
The so-called "Triangle of Death" is in the north of the mineral-rich Katanga province, a remote and forgotten area that contrasts with the richer south. Its boundaries are set by the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto.
Two tribal militias are at work there: the Kyungu Mutanga Mai Mai, known as "Gedeon", and the Kata-Katanga Mai Mai – and both are active recruiters of child soldiers.
"They kidnap young minors, whom they train and later force to take part in attacks against the population and the Congolese army (FARDC)," the Congolese Association for Access to Justice said in a statement in mid-January.
When the Kata-Katanga militia recruited 14-year-old Paul and told him that they would give him training, the Congolese teenager and his family were delighted: he would receive an education they could not afford to give him.
"They said that they were going to train the liberators of the sons and daughters of Katanga," the youngster told the news agency Syfia Grands Lacs.
"Because I wasn't at school for lack of means, I went along.
My main goal was to study ... My parents were happy because that was a chance for me to be trained."
In March, along with 39 other child soldiers, Paul took part in an armed rally held by the militia in Katanga's capital Lubumbashi.
He realised that "everything that our leaders were saying was a lie. Death was waiting for us."
"Me, I shall never go into an armed group again. All that I ask is that somebody helps me return to my family and to study."
According to the charity War Child, Africa has the largest number of child soldiers, with kids serving conflicts in Chad, Somalia, Sudan and the Central African Republic as well as the DR Congo.
The widespread horror of using child soldiers is exposed in Johnny Mad Dog, an award-winning 2008 war film by French director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire set in an unidentified African country.
The film portrays indoctrinated child killers, often high on cocaine, in shockingly violent clashes, before they are cast out by ruthless warlords who have no further use for them and abandon them to their fate.
Local authorities in Katanga have already reached out to young people to urge them to quit the militias.
But in practice, those who flee run the risk of being killed.
Favero explains that the armed movements use "traditional beliefs and myths that make the children believe that they will be invincible to bullets". Or they are told that those who defend their group will be considered as "heros and earn lots of money".
The campaign is using local radio and calling public meetings to reach 5 000 children and 30 000 people overall in five communities.
Organisers tell parents that their children should not be taking part in war, but should instead be in school.
They also address the militias themselves, often forming part of the community.
"The leaders and community networks for the protection of children communicate with the armed movements, to whom they give the most appropriate messages," Favero adds.
Tactics are meant to be dissuasive and include reminders that the recruitment of child soldiers, some of whom take up arms as young as 12, is a war crime now being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
In March the ICC indicted one of the DR Congo's most notorious warlords, General Bosco Ntaganda – better known by his fearsome nickname of "the Terminator".
Ntaganda faces trial for recruiting children in the northeastern Orientale province.
Last year his ally Thomas Lubanga was jailed for 14 years for using child soldiers in his rebel army in 2002 to 2003.
The campaign, financed by Unicef – which is also working to prevent the enlistment of children in Orientale and the highly unstable eastern provinces of North and South Kivu – has produced "encouraging results", Kadinga adds.
If children held by Katanga militias are freed, Unicef will immediately care for them before they return to their homes, Kadinga says.
Demobilisation activities are part of a national action plan agreed in October 2012 by the Kinshasa government and the UN mission in DR Congo, Monusco, which also concerns children enlisted into the state's armed forces and security services. – AFP