Liberated but not free: Helping DRC’s children of war
Dogo, a former child soldier, was shot in the hand after rebels stormed his village in the DRC (Paul Bettings for World Vision)
Published Monday, January 20, 2014 12:57PM PST
Last Updated Monday, January 20, 2014 1:00PM PST
I notice it right away when I shake Dogo’s hand: his fingers aren’t gripping mine. Closer inspection reveals a scar the size of a silver dollar just above his wrist, snaking up towards his elbow.
His hand is paralyzed – a reminder of the suffering he and the people in his village faced during the rule and terror of the M23 rebel takeover in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Dogo, 14, was shot when armed groups stormed his villeage, Rhuturu, last year. He was abducted to fight as a child soldier, and found himself at the centre of the rebel insurgence that would see thousands dead and almost a million people forced out of their homes. At the height of the conflict last year there were an estimated 30,000 child soldiers in the country.
“They were raping women, they were looting villages, they beat me every day,” he says.
But Dogo is one of the lucky ones. He escaped back to his village a week after being kidnapped. Others, like his best friend, never made it home.
It was months before the M23 militia’s year-long campaign of terror ended, in November 2013. The liberation of Rhuturu marked a milestone in a shaky and tenuous peace process in the DRC, but the problems are far from over.
An estimated 1 million people in the eastern region of the DRC have been displaced by a vicious civil war that has raged for the last five years. And for every new round of violence and rebel strikes, more people flee their homes in order to escape the horrific conflict.
Many children became separated for their families during the chaos of armed attacks in the middle of the night, and have been left to fend for themselves. The Ugandan Red Cross has registered hundreds of unaccompanied children who fled on foot to the neighbouring country. Only half have been reunited with their parents so far.
Families end up living in camps for internally displaced people (IDP) for months, sometimes years.
But as families return to their now-peaceful villages, they are forced to rebuild their homes and lives – with virtually no resources.
“There is peace now in areas where there wasn’t before. But people are returning home and there is nothing for them. There are no farms, their homes are burned,” said World Vision Canada President Dave Toycen.
The key to a better future
For children, there is another hidden cost to the displacement. Their access to education – often their only chance at a future – has been completely severed. Thousands of children in the DRC haven’t been to school in years, if they went at all in the first place. The conflict saw the destruction of many schools and the forced recruitment of children into armed groups.
But amid the desperation, there is hope.
At the Children’s Voice Centre in Goma, more than 1,000 war orphans and former child soldiers are getting a second chance at a better life and a successful future.
It’s not an ordinary school. In a society where most children were in armed groups, street kids or displaced from their homes, the curriculum here is remedial and realistic. Children are taught two grades of schooling in one year. Children aged 14 and older are taught basic literacy and math and go directly to skills training.
“In the education system children have lost years,” said Toycen. “There has to be some sort of remedial education for them and some vocational training so they can have some skills so they can provide for themselves.”
Students in the free program funded by World Vision Canada can choose to be a mechanic, hairdresser, tailor, carpenter, baker or get into the hospitality industry. Graduates are given a reintegration kit with tools for their chosen profession: a tailor will receive a sewing machine, while a mechanic gets a belt with repair tools.
Kabuho Germaine, 17, ended up in the vocation program at the centre because she had nowhere to go, and no money for school fees.
Now armed with a tailoring certificate and a sewing machine, the recent grad quickly found work six days a week in a small roadside tailoring shop, crafting custom clothes for women.
With her $15 monthly salary, Germaine pays for a small home and the school fees for her younger siblings.
“I can help myself, I can help my family,” she says. “I can see the future. I couldn’t before.”