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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 September, 2003, 23:25 GMT 00:25 UK
From schoolboy to soldier
By Hamilton Wende
In Ituri province, Democratic Republic of Congo

I met Manja just after he had walked in alone out of the rain. He carried nothing with him but a sleeveless nylon jacket and his memories.

DR Congo child soldiers
Child soldiers have been used as sex slaves and cannon fodder
Manja was hungry and cold when he arrived at the Save The Children centre, and did not speak while he ate porridge and stew.

He is one of thousands of child soldiers caught up in the Democratic Republic of Congo's bitter civil war, in which terrible atrocities have been committed and tens of thousands of people killed.

Some of the worst fighting is currently going on in Ituri province in the north-east of the country, where Hema and Lendu tribesmen are at war with one another.

Manja is wary of the 37 other boys who sheltered from the tropical downpour on the concrete porch of the dilapidated colonial mansion that serves now as their new home.

They are from both the Hema and Lendu tribes, and range in age from 10 to 16.

'Suffering'

After his meal an aid worker and Manja sat on the hard wooden benches of a classroom for his first debriefing. A colourful child's drawing lay forgotten nearby.

One day I went away to the market. There was fighting in my village that day, and everybody scattered. When I came home there was no-one, everybody was gone
Manja
Bullet holes and a dried bloodstain marked the bare walls - this refuge was on the frontline only months ago.

A UN armoured vehicle is parked outside to protect the children.

Helicopter gunships roar overhead, searching for signs of fresh trouble.

"I heard that there were other boys without parents who were living here," Manja says in the high-pitched voice of a 12-year-old.

"I decided to leave the militia and join them. I left my gun there. I told them I was suffering, but they said I had to stay, so I went away secretly."

He walked for two days to reach the safety of this centre.

"I left in the evening, just before sunset. I came here all the way on foot, but sometimes other civilians gave me a lift on a bicycle."

I wondered how much fear and desperation Manja felt on his journey. He risked being shot or tortured for deserting his militia group, travelling alone at night, he was in terrible danger.

Killings here still go on under cover of darkness.

One evening when I met Manja, we heard gunshots in the deep tropical night.

The next morning the UN told us a group of Hema had attacked the house of a Lendu leader.

The Lendus drove off their attackers, killing one of them.

No more school

This fear and violence is the only world this child knows now, but once life was different.

He lived in a village in the green, rolling-hill country north of Bunia.

He went to school like other children.

He grew up with his parents, Mangala and Elena, and his five brothers and four sisters.

But now, with the fighting, there is no school.

"I was farming," Manja told us. "One day I went away to the market. There was fighting in my village that day, and everybody scattered. When I came home there was no-one, everybody was gone."

He joined a group of people heading south, fleeing from their Lendu attackers.

He found himself utterly alone, without anyone willing, or able, to help him.

"I don't know where my father and mother are," he said. "I had nothing to eat. I joined the gunmen to get food.

"I was with the other fighters for eight months," Manja went on. "There was nothing good about that life," he said. "I was always hungry, and sometimes I was sick."

In a child's eyes

It is hard to imagine all that Manja witnessed.

Massacres have been committed by both sides.

Scores of people shot or hacked to death with machetes. Woman have been raped and then murdered. There have been many incidents of decapitation and even cannibalism.

There is an eerie sharpness that comes abruptly into his eyes.

"I left because they didn't pay me," Manja says, staring at me. It is an unexpected detail, one that rings with the new-found power and hardness that carrying a gun has taught him.

I find myself suddenly intimidated by him.

Then, just as suddenly, he relaxes, and so do I.

He has learned instinctively how to control others, even adults.

I wonder how many checkpoints on the empty forest roads he has manned with his AK-47. I wonder what he has ordered people to do.

No return

Something has been lost forever in this child's life.

It has been replaced by layers of anger and violence that trouble his memory.

In a battle I tried to shoot someone, but I went to the place afterwards and I never saw the body
Manja
He shifts between childlike innocence and the knowledge of murder.

He looks away when I ask him about the fighting. Then he turns back and smiles nervously, like a child in front of a headmaster.

"I was in five battles," he says. "In many towns near here. I fought, but I never killed people. In a battle I tried to shoot someone, but I went to the place afterwards and I never saw the body."

Is it the truth? I will never know. Certainly, the bitterness and the fear of his enemies is still fresh in Manja's mind. "The Lendu have a bad way of living," he says. "They are very cruel."

But he doesn't want to go back to the militia.

"I can never join again," he says. "It was a very bad experience in the war. What I have done in fighting is enough, now God is protecting me."

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