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Page last updated at 23:57 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Congolese children forced to fight

Generic image of Congolese rebel soldier walking with children

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Goma

"We were on our way back from school when we met the rebels. They made us carry some luggage for them and then told us to go with them," says a 16-year-old caught up in the recent unrest in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jean Vierre, whose name has been changed for his safety, is now in the care of a foster family in Goma, placed there by UK charity Save the Children.

But his story points to a disturbing new trend.

When the rebels saw me trying to escape they shot me
Haguma [not his real name], 18

In the last few months, fighting between the Congolese army and rebels has escalated, and more and more children are being kidnapped to bolster numbers amongst the various militia.

Jean Vierre was one of a group of 10 ambushed some two weeks ago.

He, his six classmates and three teachers were abducted in what appears to be a well-planned attempt to find new recruits.

"When we got to the camps, the rebels told to join the military forces. They took us and threw us in a hole. We were given military outfits and told we had to wear them," explains Jean Claude [not his real name].

The two boys managed to escape after two days but not before they saw many other teenage boys in a similar position.

Schools

Forced recruitment of child soldiers is nothing new in DR Congo, but Save the Children's Beverley Roberts believes the armed militia groups are now targeting entire schools or groups of students.

Displaced people tap into a supply of water aid nearby the Nyiragongo volcano in Kibati

"We know that they're being used as porters, that's very clear. We have reports of children having to transport arms right now. That's very disturbing," she says.

"Unfortunately also you'll have the children sexually abused in these groups. Those are clearly some of the worst cases and then yes they are used as fighters, they might be trained as fighters - all sorts of uses. I mean you can only imagine."

We cannot identify the groups involved nor any of the individuals who were taken.

Save the Children does not want any reprisals.

But they do want international condemnation and pressure to stop the practice. And it seems to be surging now, just as the fighting is escalating and the need for new recruits grows fast.

Another unwilling recruit, 18-year-old Haguma [not his real name] tells how he was recruited into the militia.

"I was at home when the rebel militaries came and took me by force and told me that I had to fight the government soldiers," he says.

"I was wounded in the village of Mgunga. The rebel soldiers were beaten. They headed to Rutshuru but I was carrying some heavy luggage so I stayed behind. I was also trying to escape.

"When the rebels saw me trying to escape they shot me. After I was shot the government soldiers took me to Goma."

Long process

Nobody knows the long-term effect of so many traumatised children on a society that Save the Children is doing its best to reintegrate them.

"Once we have identified where that child comes from we start to work with the family to receive that child again and make sure that the family is ready, they understand what the child has gone through," Ms Roberts says.

I was just waiting for the day I would die so that it would end
John [not his real name], 15

"We make sure the child is ready. It's a long process but a necessary process."

The numbers are huge. Even before this latest surge in fighting, aid agencies estimated that there were 3,000 child soldiers across eastern DR Congo.

Now that number is almost certainly far higher.

It is doubtful that children like 15-year-old John [not his real name] will ever recover from their experience at the hands of the rebels.

"I knew that some day I would be shot or die from a disease because there was no medication or treatment available. I didn't like it at all. There was nothing I could do.

"I was just waiting for the day I would die so that it would end."

Map of eastern DR Congo



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