By Taylor Toeka, Caritas Goma
Germain Muhindo comes top of his class almost always, yet a few months ago the eight year old first grader had never even seen a chalkboard. But he had seen war. He was forced into being a child soldier for three months in September 2012 by fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ravaged east.
“We were working to the fields when we met the rebels,” said Germain. “They ordered my older brother, who is thirteen, to carry their bags. He refused so they hit him and made him do it. As there were only two of us, they made me come along too.”
Half a million people were driven from their homes in North Kivu last year and thousands of children were taken to be used as soldiers, cooks, messengers, porters or the girls as sex slaves by government and rebel forces.
“Every day I thought of my mother,” he said. “I didn’t know how to feed myself. I was very ill.”
Germain was released from his captors to Caritas Goma and is now one of the 32 boys and 6 girls at a centre for former child soldiers run by Caritas in Kanyabayonga. Caritas provides the children with medical and care and counselling, safe place, helps them restart their schooling or gives those beyond school age the skills to find work.
“After reunification with their families, we get them back into school,” said Leontine Munganga, head of Caritas centre. Germaine is special as he is so young and had never been to school before. The Caritas staff are enormously proud of his achievement in doing so well.
It’s takes the children about three months before they can return home. Germain is staying longer because his village is unsafe.
The process is slow as Caritas must prepare the child and the community they are returning to accept them back. Tackling discrimination against the children for the crimes they were forced to commit is important.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in armed conflict forbade the recruitment of children by either governments or rebels. Until now the Congolese army and militias are on a ‘list of shame’ for their use of children in armed conflict.