GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo – Being a girl, Sophie isn’t what most people expect when they hear the term “child soldier.” But the 22-year-old woman from the North Kivu region of war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was forced into this role for seven years. Rebels came to her village one night when she was 11, grabbed her along with some other children, and held them all captive in the bush.
Sophie was married off to one of the rebels and made to carry out domestic work. “I had a husband [in the bush],” she says. “I was required to cook and clean, too.”
It’s estimated that there are 250,000 child soldiers globally, and that 40 percent of them are girls, usually taken as “wives” for the armed groups who kidnap them. Most are subject to sexual exploitation and forced to perform duties such as cooking and midwifery, but some receive weapons training and actively participate in combat.
DRC has one of the highest rates of child soldiers in the world, with an estimated 30,000 – 12 percent of the global total. Civil war has raged in this former Belgian colony since the early 1990s, so far costing the lives of over 5.4 million. North Kivu, in northeastern Congo, has long been heavily occupied by armed groups, and for several years its largest city, Goma, was considered a hub for the recruitment of child soldiers.
While conflict-related deaths in DRC have steadily decreased since the 1990s, the fighting continues, and there are still more than 40 active armed groups in eastern parts of the country. When presidential elections, due to take place in November 2016, were postponed by current president Joseph Kabila until December 2018, clashes between protesters and police led to renewed fighting and hundreds of deaths. In February alone, more than 100 people were killed by security forces.
With the country in the grip of violence and political unrest, experts warn that armed groups will once again start recruiting child soldiers from Goma and the surrounding region. Former child soldiers who were rescued or escaped from the armed groups as fighting subsided are particularly vulnerable to being recruited again because, for many, life as a soldier is more appealing than the life they have returned to.
Many who return home don’t have access to services aimed at helping them reintegrate, leaving them exposed to discrimination and rejection by their communities. For girls, fitting in again once they are back home can be especially difficult. Assumed to have been raped by their captors, girls who have been held by rebel groups are often shunned by their families and communities.
“We have known men. We are considered dirty,” says Sophie. “People don’t even speak to us.” Seeing no other choice, many go back to the groups they once fled.
“There were many girls [former child soldiers] in the area, but the majority went back to the bush. They were not well accepted here. People discriminated against them,” says Marie, 17, another former child soldier from North Kivu. Like the other girls who spoke for this story, Marie was reluctant to give much detail about her time with the rebel group that kidnapped her.
Sean Poole, director of international programs at Invisible Children, has spent the past few years working with child soldiers in neighboring Uganda and says the reintegration of child soldiers into their communities is a difficult, complex process that requires intensive support.
“It’s a sobering experience when these individuals come out of the bush where they have usually spent more than half their lives,” he says. “They need more than just medicine and education. They didn’t have a normal childhood, so they need to be able to re-create some of the rituals that are part of that.”
Whether it’s simply playing football regularly with friends or going to church on Sundays, children hugely benefit from everyday routines, says Poole.
The government doesn’t have the resources to heal the economic and social wounds of the decades-long civil war, which analysts say might be exacerbated by the current political turmoil. So it’s left to a handful of international organizations to provide psychosocial support to the affected communities.
“Children who come back from an armed group usually suffer from intense stigma, especially girls,” says Isabelle Guitard, director of programmes at Child Soldiers International (CSI). The organization works to reduce stigmatization by raising awareness among communities and providing mediation between former child soldiers and their families and religious leaders.
“Anything that boosts community dialogue and participation is an effective method of reintegrating former child soldiers into society – as well as preventing further child recruitment,” says Guitard. “We need to make communities understand that it wasn’t the choice of these children to be part of the conflict.”
Sophie and Marie know they may never be able to return to the lives they had before they were taken by the rebels. Both suffered sexual abuse and witnessed killings while they were living with armed groups.
So they settle for appreciating anything – not matter how small – that makes them feel like “normal” people. For Sophie, it’s singing. “I love singing at the church,” she says. “I just pray that no other girl sees what I have seen.”
Some of the names have been changed to protect the girls’ identities.
This story was reported with the support of an African Great Lakes Fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.