News and Views on Africa from Africa
Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
Subscribe to our RSS feed
RSS logo

Latest news

DR Congo

Rights body condemns use of child soldiers

Seven years of continuous war has led to the death of over three million people since 1998 alone. A new report by Amnesty International further reveals that the conflict has also been marked by the widespread use of children as combatants.
27 September 2003 - Clement Njoroge

The internationally renowned human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has now accused rival militia in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) -- backed variously by Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC government for fuelling the more than seven year old conflict in the country.

And the biggest factor keeping the fire burning is the competition to control and profit from the immense riches of the DRC's natural resources.

DR Congo is one of the African countries, which is immensely endowed with gold, diamonds, timber and coltan. Condemning rival militia for perpetuating the war, Amnesty International notes:

Military control of a particular region also permits the political and military leaders of the local and foreign forces to extort taxes from the local population and to monopolise customs duties on cross-border trade, which can run to millions of US dollars a month .

But us the war over the country s natural resources continue, children, aged between 7 and 18 are the starring in the Conflict. One such child is Olivier. According to Amnesty s report, Olivier began life as a child soldier at the age of 11 and spent the next seven years of his life serving in various armed groups.

After capturing the coltan-rich town of Katoye, his RCD-Goma commander ordered his soldiers to attack the local civilian population: 'He ordered us to loot everything they had, to drive them away and to destroy their homes. Olivier confessed to Amnesty International of having killed under the command of his seniors in the force.

Jeanne was forcibly recruited by the AFDL at the age of 11 in 1996: I was recruited in Goma on my way home from school. I came across some soldiers who were pretending to mend their broken-down vehicle, but in fact it was a ploy. They called me and some other children over, and when I went up to them, they grabbed me, threw me into their vehicle and took me off to a training centre. I was trained there and then we began the march towards Kinshasa. Because we were taken just like that on our way home from school, our parents had no idea where we were. To this very day I don't know if my parents are alive. And even if they are, they don't know what's become of me. Jeanne told Amnesty.

According to the report, Children may join the armed forces 'voluntarily' as a means of survival after the collapse of family, social and economic structures. They can also be more receptive to the propaganda of the recruiters than adults and less aware of the realities of war, which lie in store for them.

But above all, many are in any case given no choice and are simply conscripted against their will. Militia commanders often find children more malleable to their will, more obedient and easier to indoctrinate than adults.

The report also observes that massive flow of small arms into the DRC has also made the use of child soldiers more viable, since these comparatively light weapons can easily be carried by boys and girls who are below 10 years of age.

The information and analyses contained in this report are based largely upon research carried out by Amnesty International in the DRC during 2003. In visits to Beni, Bukavu, Bunia, Goma, Kinshasa and Uvira, researchers interviewed many serving and demobilised child soldiers.

They also talked to local and expatriate experts in the fields of child soldier recruitment, demobilisation and human rights, as well as to the parents of child soldiers. They also met with a number of government officials and armed group leaders to raise concerns about the use of child soldiers.

Once recruited, children are usually sent to training camps along with adult recruits to undergo military training and indoctrination. On the frontline, child soldiers are repeatedly obliged to commit abuses, including murder and rape, against civilians and enemy soldiers. The feeling of loss and the trauma of the actions they have witnessed or committed have a devastating effect on their physical and mental integrity.

Former child soldiers like Albert, now 19, told Amnesty International that they are afraid to return to their communities because the local people have witnessed them take part in crimes. I was looked upon badly by the population. When I killed people in K, I was nicknamed 'the Assassin' and the name became known. People started to say that the Assassin has left the army and so now we are going to make him pay. It would be suicidal for me to dare to go back there. They would kill me. He recounts.

The recruitment and use of children as soldiers in the DRC, or Zaire as it was then called, first escalated dramatically in 1996. In July of that year a newly-formed armed coalition called the AFDL began an insurrection in the eastern provinces of Kivu.

Backed primarily by Rwanda and also by Burundi, and facing an ill-trained and unpaid Zairean army, the insurgent forces advanced rapidly, overthrowing President Mobutu Seseseko and bringing Laurent-Désiré Kabila to power in May 1997.

In the course of 1996 in the eastern town of Bukavu several thousand children reportedly underwent military training with the AFDL, setting a precedent for the use of child soldiers, which has been followed by all other armed groups in the DRC to the present day.

While some children enlisted into the AFDL voluntarily, seduced by propaganda and by the initially generous monthly pay of US$100, which was vastly more than the average Congolese civilian could have hoped to earn, many thousands of other boys and girls were recruited against their will and often without their family's knowledge. This is again setting a distressing pattern for the future. To this day some of these children have never seen their parents again. Amnesty observes.

The total number of child soldiers currently serving as members of the FAC, the Congolese government army, has not been established accurately, although it is certainly in the thousands. United Nations agencies and other observers commonly advance the estimate that children make up some 10 per cent of the FAC, but there is no detailed research, which corroborates this figure.

The Congolese authorities themselves are reluctant to release any official figures, although the then Minister for Human Rights indicated to Amnesty International in early 2003 that there were some 3,000 child soldiers in FAC ranks waiting to be demobilised.

To Amnesty International's knowledge, the DRC government is no longer actively recruiting children into its own armed forces, although it is providing direct military support to the mayi-mayi and the RCD-ML, both of whom continue to recruit child soldiers.

While small numbers of children were reportedly continuing to be recruited into the FAC, sometimes forcibly, as late as 2002, the last large-scale recruitment drive known to have taken place in Kinshasa, for example, was in May 2000, when the government ordered the rounding up of dozens of minors, many of them street children, and forcibly enlisted them.

The overall number of children within FAC ranks has therefore been slowly diminishing, as soldiers aged 18, escape from the army, or are officially demobilised.

The process of demobilizing these children has also not been successful. The future for many of the demobilised kadogos (Kadogo means small in Kiswahili and is used as a term for child soldier in parts of Central and Eastern Africa) in Kinshasa appears bleak.

Although in a number of cases humanitarian agencies have succeeded in locating the children's families in the east of the country, the Kinshasa government has so far refused to allow these children to return to their local communities on the grounds that they could be re-recruited by armed groups who are opposed to the government.

Without the support of their families and communities, and with limited employment prospects, many of these kadogos fear that they will become homeless street-children. Some may become embroiled in crime. Others may conclude that their only option is to go back to the army. All of these scenarios represent a disastrous failure of the demobilisation process , notes the report.

In several of the 20 resolutions addressing the situation in the DRC, such as the UN Security Council Resolution 1341 of 2001, the Security Council condemns the use of child soldiers, and demands an end to all forms of recruitment, training and use of children in armed forces.

In the Security Council Resolution 1355 of 2001 the Security Council expresses grave concerns at the continued recruitment and use of child soldiers, and calls on all parties to ensure that urgent child protection concerns, including the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of child soldiers, are addressed.

On 14 January 2003 the Security Council openly debated the UN Secretary-General's 26 November 2002 report on children and armed conflict in which a list of ten parties to the conflict in the DRC that recruit or use children was established.

During the debate, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, called on the Security Council to consider taking targeted measures against all parties on the list, including travel restrictions on their leaders and their automatic exclusion from government office or any amnesty arrangements

All in all, it will probably never be known for sure just how many thousands of children have fallen in battle far from their homes and whose young, bullet-riddled or hacked-up corpses have gone unburied on the battlefields.

What can be said for certain is that the ruthless exploitation of Congo's children by the leaders of armed forces to further their own material and political ends stands out as one of the most grotesque human rights abuses of this entire conflict.

Contact the editor by clicking here Editor