The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire, is no stranger to war and instability.
Political violence has blighted the country for decades.
However, the violence intensified after the Rwandan civil war in 1994, when Rwandan Hutu rebels known as Interahamwe fled to the DRC, fearing reprisals for their part in the mass killing of Rwandan Tutsis.
In 1998, the Interahamwe joined forces with the Zairian army to launch an offensive against the Congolese Tutsis in eastern Zaire.
The war is extraordinarily complex with huge numbers of rebel groups fighting each other, with many swapping sides.
Children are frequently snatched from their families by rebel groups to become soldiers.
Millions of civilians have died to date, roughly half of whom are children under five years old.
It has been estimated that one in ten child soldiers – or 30,000 children – are found in the DRC. The UN believes that 15-30% of all newly-recruited combatants in the DRC army are under 18 years old.
One reason the army, and the rebels, use child soldiers is that the enemy cannot find it in themselves to kill children.
Therefore, the number of recruits remains high as fewer of them are lost in battle.
In the DRC, child soldiers are forced to commit the most atrocious acts of murder, acts which mentally scar them for life.
Amnesty International reports that, as a 15-year-old soldier, ‘Kalami’ was made to ‘kill a family, to cut up their bodies and eat them’. He goes on to say ‘my life is lost. I have nothing to live for’.
Female child soldiers are frequently used as sexual slaves by the commanders.
The DRC has ratified a number of international treaties which protect the rights of children.
In 2001, for example, they ratified UN Security Council Resolution 1341, which called for ‘an end to the recruitment of child soldiers to ensure their … demobilisation, return and rehabilitation’.
According to Amnesty International, these commitments have proved little more than public relations exercises.
Many former child soldiers are unable to return to their families. There are a number of reasons for this.
The first is that many people were killed in the war and some of these children may not have any immediate family left.
Secondly, some families will not accept child soldiers, their sons or brothers, back.
These children have killed and are not welcome at home. Other families discourage their children from returning home so as to protect them from being harmed by members of their community who think those children are responsible for killing or any other bad deeds done in the past.
For child privacy reasons, we cannot say if any of the children currently in our two children’s villages in the DRC are former child soldiers.
As with HIV/AIDS patients in some places sadly being an ex-child soldier is as likely to make them a target as an object of sympathy. But what the SOS Children’s Villages provide is safety.
It is the most vulnerable children – street children, lone orphans – that are most easily recruited by the army as they have no family, no hope and have nothing to lose by joining the army.
They are also easy targets for forced recruitment and abduction. By providing orphans with a home and a family, there is almost no chance that our children will chose to, or are forced to, become child soldiers.
By sponsoring a child in the DRC, you can ensure these children can continue to live within the safety of the children’s village and have a loving family for life.
A report by child-soldier.org