“How many rebel groups are there in Congo?” I asked. They all start laughing immediately.
“There are many. In North Kivu there are many. In South Kivu there are many.” Looking at his bookshelf in search of something.
We were at one of the few centers in town that work with former child soldiers. I was filling the air with as many questions as it could hold, and it was saturated. Trying to understand this place. These people. These rebels. These children. He pulled a book from the shelf and turned to a page that listed the rebel groups. He started turning the pages. One. Two. Three. Four. Then he showed it to me.
The list: FDLR, PADECO, CNDP, LRA, Mai Mai (five different sects of them). And then I noticed the numbers to the left.
“These phone numbers… are they the phone numbers of the rebel leaders?”
“Yes. They are there.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t help but laugh and shake my head. They laughed with me. Sometimes you just have to.
“You have the cell numbers of the rebel leaders?”
“Yes, but they change often.”
I would imagine they do. The more questions I asked, the deeper I felt immersed in it all and the more I understood. Question. Answer. Question. Answer.
What did I find out? Much. Much that I knew. Much that I didn’t. For starters:
Children too young to carry large guns are given pistols
They are also filled full of drugs and placed at the front line as a human shield.
The drugs make them feel invincible. They tell them the bullets cannot hurt them”
Approximately 150 children per month are rescued and brought to the transit center in Goma. There is only one transit center. It has only 200 beds for the rescued children. In doing the math, that means that the children are only able to stay long enough for the transit center to find a family member for them to stay with. More boys will be coming in soon and they will need the room.
I say “boys” because rarely are the girls rescued. They quickly become wives of the rebel soldiers and are hid when the UN (MONUC), UNICEF, or the Red Cross come to rescue them. They are taken at young ages, and it is rare that they ever return. Ever. They become the wife of a rebel leader. His sex slave. Sometimes at the age of 12.
Only the children with severe mental disturbances (those basically who cannot be controlled after rescuing them from the bush) go to a type of mental hospital for sedation and emergency treatment. They only stay there until they are controlled. Back to the transit center until a family member can be found, with little to no counseling or rehabilitation.
Many of the boys fear going home because they are afraid of being abducted again or rejected by their families. These boys often become street children or return to the rebel force because in the rebel army there is food and they have a gun. And with gun there is power… and money.
Some of the boys we worked with were abducted by three different rebel groups on three different occasions.
Once they leave the transit center, they are given a certificate that basically says
“I was a child soldier, and I was rescued” It somehow deters the rebel forces from re-abducting them. But not always.
There are basically three ways that the children become rebel soldiers.
1. Some children are abducted from school or from their village by force.
2. At times, the rebels come into the village and actually meet with the chief of the village. They tell him they want a certain number of boys and a certain number of girls. If the parents do not give them to the rebel leaders, they are killed or they may kill the child or other villagers. Sometimes the parents must choose which of their children they give away.
3. There are also some occasions that the children go voluntarily. They may have nothing to eat at home and their family has no money. As I said, in Congo – guns are power. So because guns are often where the money is:
“Where there are minerals you will find the rebels and with the rebels you will find the minerals”
– So if you are hungry and you want to be powerful – sometimes an older boy may join the rebel force by choice.
– Both girls and boys are soldiers. Both are used to cook, fetch wood, and used as spies. Both are used as slaves.
– The children are rescued by negotiations by only a few organizations that the rebel forces adhere to. The UN, UNICEF, or the maybe the Red Cross. There is often a meeting set up and the organization negotiates for the children to be released. Often, the rebel forces hide the children so they are not found – especially the girls.
– Other times, some rebels may be arrested and the UN will go into the jail and ask for those 18 and younger to stand up so they can release them into the transit center.
– In the transit center, they do not only work with former child soldiers. They also work with street children, vulnerable children, and those whose have been abandoned because their families have accused them of being sorcerers. There is a special program in the transit center specifically for children who have been abandoned due to parents’ accusations of them being sorcerers. Abandoned.
What I found most disturbing was that there is little true rehabilitation currently going on in Goma for these children. Not that we were able to find. Most are only kept at the transit center long enough to place them into a home with a family member after being out of the bush only 2 – 3 weeks. The programs once assisting the children (mainly boys) with a deeper sense of rehabilitation and healing have had their funding reduced as of last year.
The good news? We worked with a wonderful program that we cannot wait to support more and more. This program not only helps with the boys’ healing (physically, spiritually, and emotionally), but it teaches them a vocational training and teaches them to be leaders of peace in their communities. Redemption is beautiful, and we were so honored to be a part of that.
“So what happens to them?” I asked
“They are often rejected by family and then they re-enter the rebel force or the government army or they go on the street.”
Four facilities in one day and they all say the same thing.
“There is a great need for care of the spirit. The rebels they try to kill the mind of the children. They try to kill the spirit for their good. There is a great need to help them come to life.”
Father God, It isn’t often that I have no words. I am in my bed tonight in a daze of drowning in new knowledge and need. Need for your grace and peace in this place. For these boys. For these girls trapped in the bush. But I am more determined than ever to help them to find it. They are worth it. I think of Emerson. So tiny. Barely able to make sentences that you can understand. What if it was him? What if that was Haley, Julia, or Emma who had been taken and used as slaves or wives for the rebel leaders? Would I fight for them? So hard. I would fight . Thank you for leading us to these wonderful men and women who believe in them as much as we do. Open the doors of support for them and for sponsoring these children. Show me the way, Lord.