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I recently returned from an eight-day trip around Goma and Bukavu, my first to Congo. There is much to reflect on, but I want to begin with one particular aspect of what I saw that has remained in the forefront of my mind. It was sparked by a visit to a child soldier reintegration center in Bukavu, but begins with a broader question: If we believe that youth are our future, then what does eastern Congo’s future really hold?
Just under half the population of Congo is under the age of 14, meaning that there are millions of youth growing up in the eastern region knowing only a life surrounded by violence. There are estimated to be over 800,000 orphans as a result of violence and its consequences – killings, disease, hunger, families separated by armed groups, and a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic among the causes. Thousands of children are growing up in internally displaced persons camps, countless child soldiers make up ranks of armed groups, survivors of sexual violence are as young as two years old, and I met one boy who had stumbled upon a grenade and lost a leg. Not a single youth in eastern Congo remains untouched in one way or another by this conflict. I witnessed an incredible amount of energy and hope in the youth I met. But what happens to those who are expelled from school because they can’t pay the fees, or those who do not receive any psychological support after witnessing attacks on their families, or those unable to find employment? What alternatives actually exist to joining an armed group? As a community leader in Bukavu told me, “I could go on all night about all the problems youth face.”
Within this myriad of challenges facing youth in the region, I find hope in an encounter I had in Bukavu at a transition center for former child soldiers. This transition center is one of 35 in South Kivu province run by an organization called BVES, which provides counseling and psychological support as well as training in technical skills and education to help these young men reintegrate back into civilian life. The former child soldiers are all in their teenage or early teenage years, and they have all spent significant portions of their childhood – sometimes up to five or six years by the age of 14 – under the command of armed groups.
The electricity was out the night that I went to visit the center, and I sat in a circle with 40 former child soldiers and a sole lantern and heard their dreams for the future. The feeling of community and hope forged in this center is at once the most emboldening and humbling accomplishment I have witnessed, and I felt a contagious sense of camaraderie and vitality exuding from the entire group. Contrary to my expectation of feeling hopeless by their stories, I remain inspired by their strength in working to overcome immense hurdles. Many battle serious drug addictions, the psychological trauma each has experienced is tremendous, and many have returned to civilian life unable to locate their families – but they are all working to turn the page from their past.
It struck me that each of these young men represent multiple lives saved. By removing one child soldier from an armed group, those that he may have killed and terrorized with his hands are safe; also at once victim, he too has another lease on life.
Since January, 350 former child soldiers have passed through the Bukavu center alone, coming from the ranks of the many rebel groups across the region, including the FDLR, Mai-Mai, and the Congolese army. Those who make it to transition centers represent only a small portion of the total number of child soldiers in eastern Congo, which makes it all the more disturbing and puzzling to hear President Obama give Congo a pass on the recruitment and use of child soldiers when he recently waived a section of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. It is well documented that the Congolese army is guilty of mass human rights abuses, and youth in the army commit no less atrocious acts, nor fare any better in the ranks of the army than they would under the command of a militia group.
Sitting in this circle, I thoroughly enjoyed laughing with these teenagers about how one day when one of them is president of Congo I expect him to remember me so that I may have the opportunity to shake the president’s hand. And I meant it – they have dreams for opportunities beyond the barrel of a gun, and they are some of the lucky to have in front of them a chance to pursue a life that they choose, rather than one that a rebel commander chooses for him. As each member of the group shared his hopes, he asked me to share a message here in the United States: There are still thousands of child soldiers in armed groups, and the world must not turn its back on them. Don’t forget the others, don’t forget all of the girls hidden by the armed groups and taken as their “wives.” I am so grateful for a second chance at life, and I only wish this upon all of my brothers and sisters left behind.
I truly believe that the best way to remember the others is to cut out the economic roots of the crisis. There will be “others” until there is peace. But as we continue to keep our eye on addressing the root causes of violence in the United States by pressuring industries and the U.S. government to take action, I do wonder what happens to the youth of eastern Congo next, and in turn what that means for the long-term future of the country. It isn’t only the child soldier who has lived the effects of the violence, but an entire generation that will be the leaders of Congo tomorrow.
There are very few people or organizations that I came across in eastern Congo talking about the many hurdles faced by youth. BVES and Yolé! Africa in Goma, which offers youth an alternative to violence through music, dance, and the arts, are among the few focused solely on addressing their needs. I don’t know the answer to what happens next for Congo’s youth, but I do know that the youth is the future of Congo, and if we are talking about ending the violence and creating sustainable peace, it’s imperative that we start thinking about this entire generation that is growing up witnessing their families and communities torn apart by this conflict.
Photo: Child soldier mans a check point in eastern Congo (AP)