In Kasai, one of poorest regions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), children are the first victims of the conflict that ignited in August 2016. Wherever violence erupts, children are recruited into militias. UNICEF and its partners have helped 826 former and released child soldiers by providing psycho-social services and support across five transit and orientation centres.
Kasai went through a very turbulent period when a small conflict between a local traditional leader and the Congolese government degenerated into a real war. The region has become the scene of clashes between militias and government security forces. The children are seriously affected, especially those who are actively involved in the violence.
It is estimated that 40-60% of militia members are minors, most of them less than 15 years old. As of December 2017, 2,261 children have been identified as child soldiers. Most of them got involved because they were promised invincibility and a better future — newcomers were initiated by having “magical” potions administered to them, that enabled strength, invincibility and even invisibility to their enemies.
The Tshikapa Transit and Orientation Centre for children released from militias was set up by UNICEF to receive and help these children. Today, I am standing in front of its closed doors. The guards do not let me enter as the children’s security needs to be assured and their identities protected. It is only after identifying myself as a UNICEF employee and confirming my appointment with the centre’s coordinator that the big doors open.
I enter the centre with a certain amount of apprehension as I am going to meet children who, just a short while ago, were fighting in militias. Arthur Ngoy, the coordinator here, knows the stories of these children well. They have lost contact with their family members. “Some of them roam the streets and are brought here by non-governmental organisations. Others, detained by the police and security forces, are handed over to us by UNICEF,” Arthur explains.
The Transit and Orientation Centre accommodates 25 boys. Arthur tells me that the centre is working to reintegrate the children into their communities. “They receive medical care and we provide them psychological counselling. They take lessons in French and mathematics. We also organise games and sporting activities so they can forget the past,” he continues.
I meet the children while they attend a mathematics class. I feel they are doing surprisingly well. They are happy to see me and we quickly strike up a conversation. When they tell me about their future plans it becomes fascinating. François (16) tells me he wants to become a minister and teach people about good; and Jean, barely ten years old, wants to be president to improve the lives of people. I also meet a future doctor, a mechanic, a musician, and so on. One by one, they give me a lesson in humanism. After everything they have been through, these children are focused on the future — their own as well as that of others.
The centre can receive up to 120 children. UNICEF has set up two similar centres – one for boys and the other for girls – in Kananga, the capital of the neighbouring Kasai-Central Province. Unfortunately, the risks involved are necessary as the violence continues and children are always actively a part of it.
So far, more than 800 children have been received in the various centres and several have returned to their community of origin. Arthur tells me that it is not always easy. “There are times when the family does not want their children to return because they have stolen or even killed.” He adds, “If they do not get real opportunities in life through education or vocational training, they risk being actively involved in fighting again during the next outbreak of violence.”
As we mark the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, we want to highlight again that children should be safe in their homes, at school and in the playgrounds. They should not be used, forced to fight, targeted or under attack. Protecting every child should be everyone’s concern
Yves Willemot is Head of Communications at the UNICEF country office in the DRC.