Yesterday in Eastern DRC there was an out pour of overwhelming tears of joy and celebrations as families were reunited with 152 child soldiers.
The Eastern Provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Orientale gained back 147 of their boys and 5 girls after months and years of the children serving armed forces and groups under duress.
Child soldiers still run as a problem in areas across Africa that are riddled with heinous war crimes. Some children are recruited by force, usurped from their families. Other children voluntary join rebels and armed group with patriotic reasoning; feeling the need to avenge or defend their community. According to Tanja Cisse, a runner of a civilian protection activity for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), child solder recruitment is a widespread problem across DRC, although it is prohibited by national and international law.
Children are not only sent to the front line as soldiers, but are also used as cooks, porters, messengers, scouts, spies or sex slaves( usually this happens to girls, who are sometimes forced into marriage).
According to ICRC, child soldiers suffer a heavy physical and psychological toll, injuries that lead to disabilities, pregnancies, rejection by the community and psychological distress. “Going back to being a child or a teenager can be very difficult,” added Ms Cisse. “We are there to prepare them, help them settle back into family life, and try to ensure they won’t be recruited again.”
Prior to meeting their families, the children were placed in a centre in Kamina, a city in the southern province of Katanga. The centre is run by APEDE. ICRC went through an intensively rigorous process of collecting information needed to find the children’s families.
ICRC staff, along Red Cross volunteers would travel long distances by car, motorbike, foot and bicycle to the most remote locations in DRC. By July and August last year, ICRC reunited 99 children with families. However, sometimes not every story has a happy ending.
There are cases where families reject the children, not welcoming them back into their family. According to one of the ICRC staff, families have fear that the child won’t change their behaviour or that the entire family will be rejected by the community due to the violent acts the child has caused.
This means reuniting former child soldiers with their families is not the only process, but the first step to retaining peace in the community. Through meetings in villages, games and training sessions and family visits, ICRC along with Red Cross are slowly rebuilding the once broken communities.
Up until the end of last year, ICRC housed 576 former child soldiers while they waited to be reunited with their families. They still visit over 400 former child soldiers at their homes to ensure their settling into their respective communities.