By Fabíola Ortiz
GOMA (IDN) – Since February this year, 16-year old Melvin* lives in a shelter for former child soldiers in the suburbs of Goma, the capital city of North Kivu province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He belongs to a small community.
His story resembles that of many Congolese boys living in the faraway communities in eastern DRC. He was abducted from his home village to forcedly join the Nyatura rebels – a Mayi-Mayi ethnic community-led armed group founded in 2010 mainly by the Congolese Hutus. Among the human rights violations they have been accused of is the recruitment of child soldiers – one of the most heinous crimes they have committed.
It is two years now that the introverted Melvin, who has lost track of his family, has not been able to return to his community. He is likely to be one among thousands of orphans from the conflict.
Between 2010 and 2013, the UN documented no less than 4,194 cases of child recruitment, according to the last DRC country report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict. Approximately one-third of the documented cases involved children less than 15 years of age. 76 per cent took place in North Kivu. Their testimonies accounted for being used as combatants, escorts, cooks, porters, guards and sex slaves.
At least 65,000 children have been released from armed forces and armed groups worldwide in the past ten years (2007-2017), said the UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake in February 2017. More than 20,000 were in the DRC. Exact data on the number of children used and recruited in armed conflict are difficult to confirm because of the unlawful nature of child recruitment. However, UNICEF estimates that tens of thousands of boys and girls under the age of 18 are used in conflicts worldwide.
“UN verified figures are likely to represent only a portion of the problem given access issues for the purposes of verification, including insecurity and fighting, terrain and infrastructure problems, and government restrictions on access to armed groups,” according to the Senior Program Manager Bonnie Berry of Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict.
The introverted Melvin is now being taken care of by a local non-profit organization named Programme d’Appui à la lutte contre la Misère (Program to Support the Fight Against Poverty – PAMI) based in Goma. Created in 1997, it is one of the Congolese partners of UNICEF to work on the verification process of children who have been associated with armed forces and armed groups (called CAFAG) and to run a center sheltering unaccompanied children.
After months of fighting in the bush, Melvin decided to escape with other nine boys. “There were a lot of young people and children in the group. I would say there were in total around 2,000 rebels. I ran away carrying a weapon. It would be very dangerous if I ever go back to my village, they would kill me,” Melvin told IDN.
Now, he is living under the PAMI premises in Goma. Life has completely changed for him since he was welcomed in the shelter. “It is very different from the life I led in the armed group,” he said.
The reclusive and introspective boy has now found a new meaning for his daily life and a way of expressing himself and regain self-esteem. For five months, he has been playing a Brazilian martial art with African roots called Capoeira.
This cultural practice, simultaneously a fight and a dance, promotes mutual respect and social cohesion and was inscribed in 2014 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in UNESCO.
In the DRC, a UNICEF initiative named “Capoeira pour la Paix” (in French) – funded by Canada, Sweden, AMADE-Mondile, Belgium and the Brazilian Embassy in Kinshasa – has been included in the DDR program (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) for children.
“We knew about the fact that Capoeira was being used with vulnerable children in Haiti and also in Panama. It started like a pilot project to see how we could integrate ‘Capoeira for Peace’ within the DDR children program to support the rehabilitation of children released from armed groups and armed forces,” explained Marie Diop, a UNICEF child protection specialist in eastern DRC bureau.
This last summer, the initiative commemorated three years and has now been fully integrated in the psychosocial support activities in the transit care centers in Goma. “It is through Capoeira that children are now able to cohabit in a very peaceful manner with other children and adults. Capoeira has helped a lot in de-stigmatizing the children,” said Diop.
The 29 year-old Alex Karibu born in Kinshasa became one of the Capoeira teachers of the initiative. As a UN volunteer, he develops the Capoeira classes for children who have been demobilized from rebels in eastern DRC.
“It has been twelve years that I practice, Capoeirta came to my life as a positive change and inspired me to recover my self-confidence. I thought to myself from the very first moment that I wanted to become a Capoeira ambassador in my country,” said Karibu.
For him, this martial art enables to bring people together, overcome social differences and gather the participants as a family reunion. “It makes us all become brothers and sisters, it does not induce aggressiveness and helps in promoting harmony, peace, love and mutual respect,” suggested.
Since he arrived in North Kivu, early 2016, he has noticed progressive change within the children. “It is not easy for boys who have been in armed groups, most of them had to leave behind their families. I tell them I’m here to help and they can trust me. Many of them have been abused and mistreated.”
As a consequence of trauma, children naturally close themselves as a ‘rock’, but little by little they learn they can regain trust. “We do as with a flower, we irrigate with drops of love and respect to help them in their transformation process. We’re planting a seed for these children to bloom.”
For Joachim Fikiri who coordinates PAMI, the first step would be the breaking of the cycle of violence within the communities. The use of Capoeira, he said, is helping to integrate and to spread peace when children are back to their families.
“Children’s needs are enormous due to the conflict. Together with UNICEF and UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO), we work in all stages of the DDR for children, verifying their situation and defending their rights. I wished Capoeira was taught and practiced in every community to gather different ethnicities,” he suggested.
Some unaccompanied children who are under the care of PAMI live with hosting families, familles d’accueil (in French), as a stage of introducing them to the civil and family life again.
It has been five years that Françoise Furaha, 38, became a hosting family to receive vulnerable unaccompanied children. Her small two bedroom sized house located in Quartier Keshero, in the surroundings of Goma, has received throughout the years 28 girls and 16 boys. Nowadays she hosts a Rwandan boy who regularly attends Capoeira classes in PAMI.
“It was my inner instinct that made me choose to become a hosting family. We all learn from him and from his life story. In the morning we pray, we have meals together and when he is back from PAMI centre, he is always happier. He usually says: ‘let me teach you Capoeira, let me teach you how to do ginga [the basic swing of the martial art]’. It is a good thing for all of us,” said Furaha.
*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the person. [IDN-InDepthNews – 5 October 2017]
The reporting trip to DRC was funded by the Erasmus Mundus Journalism Consortium and the Reporting Right Livelihood 2017 journalism programme
Photo: Capoeira classes with boys formerly associated with armed groups in North Kivu. Credit: Flavio Forner | IDN-INPS
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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