Now known as Africa's first world war, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) began in 1998 among seven nations. The war has cost nearly 4 million lives, and its methods have proven equally vicious: the warring states and militia groups involved have been employing children, from ages 8 to 17, as combatants. Despite the conflict's official end in 2003 and the establishment of a new government under Joseph Kabila, the continued presence of militia groups in the Congo's Ituri district and the repercussions of the Congolese war for the conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda are producing further warfare. The ongoing violence in the east and the legacy of war have ensured the continued use of child soldiers, creating incredible difficulties for those being demobilized.
The fallout from the 1994 Rwandan genocide launched the war in the DRC as Rwanda and Uganda claimed that members of the extremist Hutu government responsible for the genocide had taken refuge in eastern Congo. They supported a May 1997 rebellion to replace leader Mobutu Sese Seko with Laurent Kabila. The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo (AFDL), which was mainly responsible for this overthrow, first began to recruit several thousand child soldiers in 1996, establishing a precedent that all other warring groups still follow.
During these recruitments, some children enlisted voluntarily either for a monthly pay of US$100, extremely generous by Congolese standards, or to protect their communities. However, thousands of others were forced into military service after being abducted from streets, schools, refugee camps, or even their own homes. These child soldiers underwent rigorous military training. Due to brutal treatment, including torture and deprivation of food, sleep, and healthcare, hundreds died. Those who managed to survive became cooks, spies, or porters. As soldiers they were forced to commit atrocities such as murdering and raping civilians, enemy soldiers, or even family members All of the recruited youths experienced military combat, whether fighting directly or acting as shields for adult soldiers. Although it is impossible to state the total number of child soldiers who have died as a result, estimates are in the thousands and rising.
As the widespread use of child soldiers caught the world's attention, Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father as president, demobilized 300 soldiers enlisted in the DRC government army and released them into the care of the United Nations in December 2001. Since then, thousands of child soldiers from other militia groups have undergone the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process, adopted in 2004 as a national program. The DDR process requires that the children be placed in demobilization centers, where they receive medical and nutritional care, psychological support, and literacy and vocational training before being reunited with their families.
The demobilization process has not been as effective as anticipated, due partly to the politics of the war. …