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Between a lifetime of killing and the chance to be a child

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

GOMA, Congo – The soccer field sits atop a bed of broken lava rocks, and most boys play barefoot or in flip-flops because they have no shoes. Volleyball matches in the same yard ended when a jagged stone punctured the ball.But the rough ground doesn’t distract a dozen boys from the simple pleasure of a good game. They laugh, tumble and wrestle for the ball amid a spray of black rock and dust.Their only job at this makeshift camp in northeastern Congo is to act like a kid – and try to forget a past of guns, war, beatings and rape.”I never chose that life,” said former child soldier Mandevu Mujambo, a rail-thin 16-year-old who was abducted six years ago by the Congolese Rally for Democracy, or RCD, a Rwanda-backed militia that was battling government forces. “They killed my father and brothers and forced me to fight.”By the time he was 11, Mandevu said, he’d become a killing machine. “I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve killed,” he said. “So many. I was one of their best shooters. Better than some of the grown-ups.”His militia service ended when his own commander shot Mandevu in a fit of rage, permanently crippling the boy. He was rescued by hospital authorities and brought to this transit center in the lakeside city of Goma, one of several dozen halfway houses set up to help traumatized Congolese children rejoin society.Mandevu is one of about 35,000 children forced to become fighters over the last decade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation racked by civil war and regional conflicts. Ethnic-based militias continue to challenge the transitional government, which took power in 2003 after a fragile peace deal officially ended what is known as Africa’s First World War.Under international pressure to halt the use of child soldiers, the country, formerly known as Zaire, has demobilized an estimated 11,000 youths, leaving as many as 24,000 still trapped in servitude to one of the dozen major armed groups in the northeast. Despite a government ban, even the national army continues to recruit young people.Habi Mana, 16, was abducted by Mai Mai tribal fighters when he was 11 and then traded to the RCD militia before joining the Congolese army this year. “I’m 18,” the boy dutifully lied when asked his age during a patrol outside Goma. The rifle that hung over his shoulder reached to his knees.Asked whether Habi was too small to be an effective fighter, his commander, Lt. Byamungu Padiri, confirmed the boy’s actual age, but said with a shrug, “The army needs as many soldiers as we can get.”The government has launched a nationwide campaign against the use of child soldiers, including public-awareness posters and new laws. “But as far as I know, no one has ever been punished for using a child soldier,” said Bernard Kitambala, manager of child-protection officers at UNICEF’s Goma office. “Until that happens, they are going to keep doing whatever they want.”A few children join armed groups voluntarily because militias or the army offer their only hope for food and shelter. But the vast majority are snatched from roads, farms, schools and markets and sent to training camps where they are taught to fire guns, steal and serve as valets for officers, washing clothes and carrying equipment.Most are beaten and many are raped by the men, child-welfare advocates say. Some girls are also kept as sex slaves, but most of the soldiers are boys.”They told me if I tried to escape, they would kill me and my family,” said Mbarusha Habyarima, 13, who was kidnapped with his brother this year while farming. Because of his small size, Mbarusha was trained to work as a thief, sneaking into homes and shops to steal food, mattresses, boots and clothes.While still at the training camp, his brother tried to run away. Militiamen shot him in the back.”I was too afraid to even cry,” Mbarusha said. “I didn’t want them to suspect me. I just kept training. They dragged his body away.” Mbarusha was eventually demobilized and sent to this transit camp consisting of several worn tents and dilapidated wooden shacks built atop hardened lava from a 2002 volcanic eruption.There’s space for up to three dozen boys, who typically spend two or three months here before reuniting with their families. It’s a time to decompress, learn to live without a gun and perhaps pick up some new skills, such as farming, carpentry or welding.For camp administrators, it’s also a chance to observe children for antisocial behavior or violent tendencies that might require hospitalization or prevent their re-entry into society.”They’ve all been through so much,” said Francoise Aradjabu, deputy director of the facility. “Nearly all the kids have engaged in killing. Many have raped and stolen. They’ve been abused themselves. We try to show them how to move from their old life to a new life.”Children arrive with a host of physical and emotional problems, including malaria, worms, syphilis, depression, anger and uncontrollable crying.Worst of all, Aradjabu said, is the guilt many feel over their part in the killings and other crimes, despite their helplessness.”When we killed from far away, it didn’t bother me,” Mandevu recalled. “They used to make us smoke pot before a fight. We didn’t really know what we were doing. It felt normal.” But one day Mandevu inspected a battlefield and saw bodies up close, some of the victims apparently no older than he was. He said he felt an overwhelming sense of shame and rage.”They were human beings, like me,” he said. “I killed for nothing. We were used for nothing. I wish I could ask for forgiveness from the people I killed.”Half a dozen camp counselors work individually with the kids to help them understand that they are not to blame.”We try to build trust, but it’s not easy to get the kids to talk about it,” counselor Joel Kiramba said. “It’s a deep secret inside them.”About 90 percent eventually reunite with their families, but some cannot because their parents have been killed or can’t be found. Mandevu’s mother is ill and unable to take care of her son, so he has had to remain at the camp for nearly two years.”Others are afraid to go back home,” Aradjabu said. Often after children are abducted, they are required to attack or steal from their families and villages to break their ties with home.Militiamen convinced one child, 16, that his family had abandoned him, Kiramba recalled. The child then betrayed his older brother to the militia, which killed him. When the younger child escaped and arrived at the transit camp, his family at first refused to accept him until camp counselors intervened and reunited the family.Many children can’t wait to go home.Beyamunju Sibomana, 15, was returning from a vacation when Congolese soldiers asked him to help carry some bags. Then they refused to release him.His family finally tracked down their son, but army officers wouldn’t let him go. For the next five months, he cooked for troops and ran ammunition during battles.Finally, he slipped away from his commander while moving through a crowded city street and turned himself over to United Nations officials. They sent the boy to the transit camp.”I hate it here,” he said. “All I can think about is going home. I see everything so differently now. I just want to go home and finish the sixth grade.”


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