Kinshasa - Desperate to save children from being used as
soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, residents of the notorious
"Triangle of Death" have taken matters into their own hands,
launching the first wide-scale campaign to end the practice in the remote and
The United Nations has several ongoing efforts to stop the
enlistment of children in the troubled country but this is the first grassroots
campaign in the south-eastern Katanga province.
Launched on April 1, the initiative led by Congolese
non-governmental organisation Action Against Poverty (ACP) targets children,
the broader population and the armed movements themselves.
Across the DRC - a potentially wealthy, resource-rich nation
ravaged by successive wars from 1996 to 2003 and still highly volatile in the
east - thousands of children are believed to have been recruited into militias.
The UN Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates that 4 500
children serve in militias across the vast nation, while "more than 1 500
children are currently being used by armed forces or groups in Katanga".
"Often, it's children who emerged from these armed
forces and groups and returned to their community who bear witness to the
tricks that armed groups use to attract youths. There are only rare cases of
fully voluntary enlistment," says Anna Paola Favero, a child protection
officer with Unicef.
The proportion of girls enlisting is "particularly
worrying", Unicef adds.
The so-called "Triangle of Death" is in the north
of the mineral-rich Katanga province, a remote and forgotten area that
contrasts with the richer south. Its boundaries are set by the towns of Manono,
Mitwaba and Pweto.
Two tribal militias are at work there: the Kyungu Mutanga
Mai Mai, known as "Gedeon", and the Kata-Katanga Mai Mai - and both
are active recruiters of child soldiers.
"Death was awaiting us"
"They kidnap young minors, whom they train and later
force to take part in attacks against the population and the Congolese army
(FARDC)," the Congolese Association for Access to Justice said in a
statement in mid-January.
When the Kata-Katanga militia recruited 14-year-old Paul and
told him that they would give him training, the Congolese teenager and his
family were delighted: he would receive an education they could not afford to
"They said that they were going to train the liberators
of the sons and daughters of Katanga," the youngster told the news agency
Syfia Grands Lacs.
"Because I wasn't at school for lack of means, I went
along. My main goal was to study... My parents were happy because that was a
chance for me to be trained."
In March, along with 39 other child soldiers, Paul took part
in an armed rally held by the militia in Katanga's capital Lubumbashi.
He realised that "everything that our leaders were
saying was a lie. Death was waiting for us. "
"Me, I shall never go into an armed group again. All
that I ask is that somebody helps me return to my family and to study."
According to the charity War Child, Africa has the largest
number of child soldiers, with kids serving conflicts in Chad, Somalia, Sudan
and the Central African Republic as well as the DRC.
The widespread horror of using child soldiers is exposed in
"Johnny Mad Dog", an award-winning 2008 war film by French director
Jean-Stephane Sauvaire set in an unidentified African country.
The film portrays indoctrinated child killers, often high on
cocaine, in shockingly violent clashes, before they are cast out by ruthless
warlords who have no further use for them and abandon them to their fate.
Local authorities in Katanga have already reached out to
young people to urge them to quit the militias.
But in practice, those who flee run the risk of being
Favero explains that the armed movements use
"traditional beliefs and myths that make the children believe that they
will be invincible to bullets". Or they are told that those who defend
their group will be considered as "heros and earn lots of money".
The campaign is using local radio and calling public
meetings to reach 5 000 children and 30 000 people overall in five communities.
Organisers tell parents that their children should not be
taking part in war, but should instead be in school.
They also address the militias themselves, often forming
part of the community.
"The leaders and community networks for the protection
of children communicate with the armed movements, to whom they give the most
appropriate messages," Favero adds.
Tactics are meant to be dissuasive and include reminders
that the recruitment of child soldiers, some of whom take up arms as young as
12, is a war crime now being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court in
In March the ICC indicted one of the DRC's most notorious
warlords, General Bosco Ntaganda - better known by his fearsome nickname of
Ntaganda faces trial for recruiting children in the north-eastern
Last year his ally Thomas Lubanga was jailed for 14 years
for using child soldiers in his rebel army in 2002-03.
The campaign, financed by Unicef - which is also working to
prevent the enlistment of children in Orientale and the highly unstable eastern
provinces of North and South Kivu - has produced "encouraging
results", Kadinga adds.
If children held by Katanga militias are freed, Unicef will
immediately care for them before they return to their homes, Kadinga says.
Demobilisation activities are part of a national action plan
agreed in October 2012 by the Kinshasa government and the UN mission in DRC, Monusco,
which also concerns children enlisted into the state's armed forces and