Rehabilitating Child Soldiers in the DRC

2/11/2011 - With the DRC set to hold elections at the end of the month, human rights groups are concerned about the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as the demobilization of existing ones.

The issue of child soldiers has been a challenging one to tackle in the community, national and even legal domains. Communities often feel victimized by the acts of child soldiers who targeted civilians during their violence pasts, while child soldiers are victims of atrocities themselves.

It is estimated that 30,000 children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been turned into child soldiers, forced to fight in a conflict that has claimed the lives of five million people. A third of these combatants were, or still are, girls. 

Some children cannot remember a time before violence plagued their lives, making it difficult for them to leave aggression behind and reintegrate into their communities. Once a child soldier has been rescued, his or her family may refuse to take the child back, given the stigma often attached to demobilized youngsters. Those who welcome back sons or daughters sometimes find their children grown up and completely changed. Parents may be unsure how to handle their behaviours.

Unfortunately, long-term psychological support, which is essential to the healing process, is not always part of the demobilization process. If rejected by their communities, former child soldiers may live in poverty and suffer from isolation, lacking both economic and social support, too.

In the eastern DRC’s city of Goma, former child soldiers have access to a transit centre helps them readjust to civilian life. Counseling support at the centre, where the children stay for anywhere between two days and three months, helps them re-familiarize themselves with day-to-day life in their former community.

After months or years of brainwashing, many child soldiers are proud of their pasts – any honours they have achieved and murders they have committed. They are, at once, both “traumatised victims and vicious perpetrators,” as the IPS news network reports.

Psychologists have found that those who enjoyed killing exhibit less post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but find reintegration more difficult. A study of 200 former combatants found that only a quarter showed symptoms of PTSD, while three-quarters still viewed violence with positive feelings.

“I liked being a soldier. I don’t know how many people I killed. In any case, I was just following order,” said one former combatant.

With Congolese citizens set to go to the polls on November 28th for the second-ever democratic elections in four decades (the first being in 2006), some analysts fear resurgence in violent conflict and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Henri Ladyi, recognized for his work rehabilitating child soldiers in the eastern DRC, said the militia members have been pulled back into the bush.

"The election motivates many people and many armed groups to go back to using guns as a way to try and gain power," said Mr. Ladyi to The Guardian. Mr. Ladyi is presently the Director of the Centre Résolution Conflits.

The Centre, which uses radios to gather information on conflict from even remote regions, has said that 16,000 people have already left their homes in the Kivu region, fearing that war will reignite.

Only days ago, a group of 40 human rights organizations, including the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Pole Institute (a respected national think-tank), warned of instability and urged the UN to deploy a “rapid reaction force” to potential sites of violence.

The recruitment of children under the age of 15 years old is against international human rights law. Nevertheless, there may be as many as 300,000 child soldiers fighting with armed groups across the world. Earlier this year, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers estimated that as man as 7,000 children were still serving in armed groups in the DRC.

Several legal initiatives have been implemented in hopes of curbing the use of child soldiers. United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution 1341 calls for an end to the recruitment of children, as well as for the demobilization and rehabilitation of current child soldiers in the country. And, since the signing of the Goma peace pact in 2008, aid groups – including Caritas and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – have been working to help implement the resolution.