Congo: Girls forced to be soldiers

Now in a cooking class in Goma, 19-year-old Alliance says after she escaped from the rebel milita that forced her to be a girl soldier, she went home to find herself shunned by her village, and viewed as rebel collaborator. She is building a new life at the Tumaini Center where she is learning skills.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Deep in the bush in Eastern Congo, after her village was raided, her mother was shot, and soldiers forced her to carry the loot away from the carnage, Pascaline got lucky. It was 2009 and when they arrived at militia headquarters, the commander’s wife announced the 16-year-old would be her personal maid.

“The soldiers said ‘No, she is supposed to be our wife,’” Pascaline said, who added the commander's wife insisted that she would be her servant. “They didn’t rape me because she took me in.”

Pascaline was the youngest of the six young women abducted from her village by rebel soldiers that day. Three of the women were raped, and the other two were killed slowly with knives when they fought back.

Officials say it is impossible to say how many of the thousands of children serving in rebel militias, armed groups and the regular army in DR Congo are girls. In the thick jungle, abducted girls serve as cooks, maids, porters, scouts, soldiers and sex slaves. If they escape, they leave traumatized, homeless and often shunned by their former friends and family.

Patrick-Cyrille Garba, deputy team leader of the United Nation’s child demobilization program in North Kivu, a troubled province of Eastern Congo, says that under-age girls are hard to rescue from militias, because commanders keep the girls hidden, afraid they will accuse the militia of sexual assault if they are allowed to speak.

“A commander will be much more eager to release boys,” he said, “than to release somebody who will then be able to say things that will involve either him or the second in command.”

The U.N. children’s agency, Unicef, says girls make up about 20 percent of the more than 31,000 children who escaped or were rescued from armed groups in DR Congo in the past seven years. The agency estimates 3,500 boys and girls are still serving in militias, but some observers say there are many more.

The Congolese war, the world’s bloodiest since World War II, began in 1996 after civil war and genocide spilled over the border from neighboring Rwanda. It technically ended with a peace agreement in 2003, but five years later, the violence had not subdued and a new power-sharing agreement was brokered.

Army officials say the war continues today, with homegrown militias integrated into the army and fighting rebel forces from neighboring Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. Other battles are internal, among warring communities. And with $24 trillion of mineral wealth believed to be below the Congolese earth, many militias survive by fighting for control of the mines and roads.

Amid the chaos, children continue to be recruited and abducted, despite international and national efforts to get them out of the war, according to Unicef.

“[Democratic Republic of Congo] is rapidly sliding backwards from its commitments to end the use and recruitment of boys and girls in armed conflict,” states a March 2011 Unicef report.

Aid agencies count the number of children who are reintegrated into society, but many children are later re-recruited or kidnapped by their former commanders, said Unicef child protection specialist Jennifer Melton. When girls are freed, she said, it is difficult to bring them back to their communities because everyone, including aid workers, assumes they have been raped. For families of the victims, rape brings shame, and the girls are stigmatized and shunned.

“We definitely have major concern for the girls that are involved,” Melton said. “Doing any kind of reinsertion for girls is much more difficult because there’s an assumption.”

Nineteen-year-old Alliance studies cooking at the Tumaini Center (Swahili for “hope”), a Goma organization that teaches vocational skills to former child soldiers, orphans, unwed mothers and other children who don’t have access to schools.

When she was 13, Alliance was abducted by the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), a militia formed in the years after the Rwandan genocide, when 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and sympathetic Hutus were slaughtered in 100 days. About 2 million Hutu refugees fled to Congo, then called Zaire. Unprecedented amounts of foreign aid poured into the country, and Hutu militants regrouped, forming the FDLR with the goal of retaking Rwanda.

After being beaten twice a day by militants for three months, Alliance slithered through bush on her stomach one day while the soldiers were in battle. Once away from the camp, she and a fellow escapee ran through the jungle for hours.

The two finally found a road, and civilians, who helped them get back to their village, where their funerals had already been performed. At home, Alliance said she felt like a social pariah. Her family wouldn’t pay her school fees, and former friends and neighbors said she was an “FDLR wife.”

“When someone says you belong to the FDLR in my village,” she said, “It is like being cursed.”

Pascaline, who now studies sewing at the Tumaini center, says she will never go back to her village. Besides being an outcast, she said, she may be abducted again. In the year and a half since she fled the militia during an attack on the headquarters, she has been hospitalized twice for panic attacks brought on by nightmares. By day, Pascaline said she is not afraid, but the militia still haunts her at night.

“I can never go home again,” she said. “I am too afraid.”