“We are children! We want peace! We want school! Let’s make peace among us!”
Watching a group of children at Lumbwe primary school singing and dancing to peace slogans was amusing, only until I learned about the physical and emotional wounds each child in the group bore.
“The girl singing in the middle of the circle was repeatedly raped and was forced to wear amulets and gri-gris for militias during violent fighting. The other girl behind her saw both of her parents killed and then her baby sister taken away before her eyes when her village was raided.”
Our adults fought in the past and everyone suffered
As we heard their stories, my colleague was gently warning me against any potentially hurtful questions I might unintentionally ask them.
The province of Tanganyika, located along Lake Tanganyika in south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was the scene of violent clashes between the Bantu and the Twa (Pygmies) ethnic groups that led to more than 630,000 people displaced and the loss of countless lives between 2016 and 2017. Although peace seems to have returned, many children who survived the conflict are still struggling with the trauma and negative emotion caused by memories of the horrendous acts of violence.
To address this, UNICEF and partners are promoting peace education by establishing Peace Committees in schools for internally displaced children. The Committee is led by students such as those I met at Lumbwe primary school. As members of the Committee, they learn life skills and play a key role in spreading the culture of peace in their school and community. Theatrical performances, songs and poems also help them heal their psychological wounds. The Committee is further responsible for preventing and mediating conflict between classmates and for helping them overcome their differences.
Peace education is a way of investing in a future free of conflict by turning children’s tragic experiences into a positive force promoting mutual understanding and reconciliation, instead of letting it degenerate into further violence and suffering.
Akil*, a calm and shy 12-year-old member of a Peace Committee began sharing his story by describing the moment he had to flee his village following the brutal murder of his father.
“I was helping my mom in the field when my little brother ran out crying and screaming ‘Mama! Pygmies came into the house and cut father’s throat!’ We all started running away. Three of my siblings including my only sister were killed. I don’t know whether my mom and two other brothers are still alive.”
Akil’s story doesn’t end there. While fleeing his village, he was picked up by Bantu militiamen who mobilized him for fighting. And thus began his life as one of the youngest child soldiers. At age 9, he witnessed people cut up into pieces and women being raped before him. He himself killed the “enemies” who destroyed the lives of his family.
While describing his ordeal, Akil stuttered frequently, indicating some remaining signs of trauma. He still firmly believes that powerful amulets protected him from arrows and turned him invisible during combat. After his release from the militia, he was constantly haunted by images of the atrocities and would experience a seizure when exposed to anything resembling blood.
As he gradually overcame the trauma with continuous psychosocial support and systematic monitoring provided by UNICEF, he voluntarily joined the Peace Committee in his school. This helped him develop self-control and empathy to avoid destructive emotions towards others. Group activities further enabled him to cultivate a sense of solidarity by teaching him that he no longer had to bear everything alone and others were there to support him.
“The Peace Committee has Bantu children like me as well as Twa children. They are all my friends. Our adults fought in the past and everyone suffered. We should forgive and accept each other to move forward together. We children can help adults in our communities understand it.”
In Tanganyika, many out-of-school children and youths are still living in the aftermath of the 2016-2017 conflict without access to the necessary psychosocial support and peace education. Despite this, Akil’s story leaves us with the hope that children empowered through peace education have great potential to define their own futures as active promoters of peace in and around schools.
In collaboration with the government and partners, UNICEF aims to reach a greater number of conflict-affected children and youth with peace education while scaling up psychosocial support and alternative education programmes.
* Names changed protect identities.
Yera Kim is an Education Specialist with UNICEF in Chad (on stretch assignment in DRC).