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Living on the fringes of society: what future for young ex-combatants?

[DRC] Rumangabo military centre. Ex-militiamen waiting to be demobilised or integrated into the FARDC. Civilian life doesn't appeal to many ex-combatants, who feel they would not be able to adapt and find a job. [Date picture taken: 12/01/2006] Mathilde Guntzberger/IRIN
Rumangabo military centre. Ex-militiamen waiting to be demobilised or integrated into the FARDC. Civilian life doesn't appeal to many ex-combatants, who feel they would not be able to adapt and find a job

“When we returned to our village after being demobilised, we had nothing to do, the situation was the same and our families were poor, so I decided to join the militias in the bush with my friends again,” said Germain, 19.

Half the population of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is aged less than 18-years-old, with 20 percent aged between 15- and 24- years, according to the United Nations Population Fund UNFPA. DRC youth have been at the forefront of the hostilities and young people still bear the brunt of the ongoing fighting. They often enlisted “en masse” in the various armed factions fighting in the war.

The reintegration of young ex-combatants into civilian life is one of the biggest challenges facing DRC. This poses a serious threat to achieving sustainable peace - a process which began in 2002 with the signing of the Global and All-Inclusive Peace Agreement, and which was launched in 2003 by the transitional government. On 27 November 2006,DRC got its first democratically elected government in 40 years, headed by President Joseph Kabila.

According to estimates from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), DRC has gone through one of the most deadly conflicts since World War II. An estimated 3.9 million civilians have died since the beginning of the conflict in 1998. However, peace is still fragile and insecurity with sporadic fighting continues, especially in the eastern part of the country where rebels continue to loot, rape and murder.

In North Kivu, a major effort is currently underway to demobilise combatants of all ages, especially the young fighters. The chief-coordinator of the Commission for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (CONADER) in Goma, the provincial capital, estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of the rebel forces in the province are aged 15- to 24-years.

Poverty: a crucial factor for youth militarisation

The massive enlistment of youth in militias during the five-year war was largely due to the existence of a generation of dispossessed young people, suffering the effects of educational collapse and social exclusion at the end of the 1990s in DRC.

In many ways, the situation is unchanged, said the head of the North Kivu Division for Youth, Dunia Bakuluea: “There is still fighting going on here and approximately 95 percent of young people in the province are unemployed, which makes militia life attractive for them.” He added that: “Young men particularly suffer from this alienation and constitute a reserve of fighters readily mobilised by local warlords who provide them with easy explanations of the crisis, based on ethnical exclusion.”

At the military centre in Rumangabo, 50 km from Goma, in the territory of Rutshuru, IRIN met Moise, 26, who recently fled Laurent Nkunda’s rebel forces, which are still active in North Kivu. He had spent most of his youth in the armed forces, joining AFDL (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire) at 16. He then joined the RCD (Rally for Congolese Democracy) in 1998 to ‘continue the fight against anti-Tutsi people in the region’ until the movement’s formal integration into the transitional government and the “brassage” or integration of its armed wing into the Congolese national army (FARDC).

Moise reasons that his actions were ethnically motivated, but in fact the underlying reason is poverty:

“My family was poor and when the armed men came to my village, I signed up immediately with my friends. We wanted to make our lives better,’’ he told IRIN. He also explained that it was for financial reasons that he recently fled Nkunda’s 83rd brigade although he had served there for 3 years: “After having joined FARDC, I was sub-lieutenant and received US $30 a month, but when Nkunda ‘took’ our unit, I only received $10.”

Youth disillusioned by reintegration

Like his peers in Rumangabo, Moise chose to join the newly integrated FARDC again rather than be demobilised and reintegrated into civilian life. This is a recent trend among ex-militiamen, explained Lieutenant-Colonel Katanga, who told IRIN: “Before, approximately 70 percent of the men would choose reintegration into civil life whereas the majority now chooses to enter the Congolese army.”

Photo: Mathilde Guntzberger/IRIN
Rumangabo military centre. Ex-militiamen waiting to be demobilised or integrated into the FARDC. Civilian life doesn't appeal to many ex-combatants, who feel they would not be able to adapt and find a job

The prospect of civilian reintegration does not appeal to Moise and his friends, most of whom are unable to read or write, and feel they would not be able to adapt and find a job. Also, returning to the village after ten years in the military poses serious problems, as young people fear stigmatisation, being a burden to their families, and most importantly being “treated as children’’ when they go back.

The challenges are particularly great for child protection partners working with children separated from armed forces or groups, as there is no possibility for them to remain in the military so long as they are less than 18 years old, despite their desire to remain in some cases.

Martin Muhindi, Child Protection Programme Manager for Save the Children UK, in North Kivu, told IRIN that in some reported cases, adolescent minors who actually chose reintegration showed bitter frustration at not being included in the adult demobilization and reinsertion programmes.

This is because the reintegration kits provided to adults include a monthly monetary allowance of $25 per month over 12 months with a one-time payment of $110, whereas reinsertion programs for children focus on equipping children with knowledge and skills through opportunities either to go back to school or to receive vocational training followed by start-up kits supporting the opening of a small business. Children are never provided with direct cash assistance given the likelihood that such funds will be taken from them by adults or spent on things that do not forward the child’s future.

In many cases, adolescents are angry because they have not yet benefited from a reinsertion programme, at times rioting against humanitarian workers. Among the 7000 children separated by child protection partners in North Kivu since the beginning of the DDR process, only approximately half have received full reinsertion support. In 2006, UNICEF supported 1,188 children in various reinsertion activities in North Kivu, including 479 in socio-professional training programmes (e.g. mechanics, carpentry, sewing) and 706 in economic reinsertion programmes (e.g. small businesses, raising of small animals) amongst 12,000 in total in DRC. Save the Children UK has supported another 2000 children in the province.

UNICEF’s Project Officer responsible for the Protection programme in Eastern DRC, Pernille Ironside, told IRIN that two principal reasons hindering the establishment of reinsertion programmes for children reunified with their families are: the ongoing insecurity in certain areas caused by the presence of militia groups who harass and threaten to re-enroll children; and the lack of local capacity to implement projects in areas where there has been no prior presence of NGOs.

Even for those who have received some limited vocational training, the difficulties in finding a job are considerable, and very dependent on the sector they choose. At the Don Bosco Centre for vulnerable youth in Goma, which like most towns in the Kivu provinces has been devastated by the war, there are two different stories. Those working in construction said they had no problem after their training to find a position in town, whereas metalworking apprentices were far more pessimistic:

“It is really difficult for us; most of the work experience we find in the region is unpaid. The Centre provides us with good training and small things like soap, but we are uncertain about our future.”

The Division for Social Affairs (DIVAS) in North Kivu manages 30 social programmes in the Province, which provide vocational training and literacy classes for vulnerable children and adults. The head of DIVAS, Domitille Rusimbuka told IRIN that their work was severely constrained by the lack of means to reintegrate vulnerable people, in particular ex-combatants:

“We virtually receive nothing from the national budget; not only are reintegration activities very costly and require equipment such as sewing machines we can hardly afford, but most of our staff has not been paid for years. For those of us who have the courage to stay, it’s a real vocation.”

She added that the social workers are not aware of what happens to the ex-combatants after they have received training and return to their families, as follow-up activities are not implemented due to lack of funding.

DDR progressing too slowly

CONADER’s DDR process has been severely criticised by international aid agencies for not reaching its initial target - social and professional reintegration of adult ex-combatants who have chosen to demobilize and children who have been separated from armed forces or groups; and neglecting its final objective – the creation of opportunities for ex-combatants to prevent re-recruitment.

Photo: Mathilde Guntzberger/IRIN
Construction apprentice, Don Bosco Centre, Goma. Vocational training programmes provide young people with skills that help them find a job after being demobilised

Although it is difficult to obtain statistics for the 15- to 24-years-old age group, the DDR programme, launched in 2004, was supposed to support an estimated 150,000 fighters, of whom 33,000 were estimated to be under 18 years.

The actual number of youths still in the different rebel groups is unknown, especially since many young people are known to have ‘self-demobilised’ without formally going through the DDR process and some groups remain almost completely isolated in the bush.

In North Kivu, international and local organisations agree that the reintegration part of the DDR programme has been inadequate due to shortcomings within CONADER, and that it poses a serious threat for the durable and peaceful reintegration of scores of young people in the region.

In July 2006, CONADER announced that due to insufficient funds, disarmament and demobilization activities would to be suspended and the remaining budget (provided by the World Bank and a multi-Country Demobilisation and Reintegration Program, MDRP) to be used for reintegration projects of ex-combatants, which it admits has been mostly neglected.

As a result, child protection agencies such as UNICEF and Save the Children UK are performing the bulk of the work in supporting children in their transition back to civilian life.

Violence in society: a crisis of youth?

Bakuluea told IRIN that young people in the town are frustrated by ongoing insecurity in the region and feel vulnerable to abuses perpetrated by militias. While sympathising with their frustrations, Bakuluea said he deplored the systematic resort to violence by the younger generation:

“The successive wars we endured have made violence and death trite in the eyes of the young generation. This new behaviour has emerged over the last 10 years, and is a risk to the fabric of our society. Before I was 20-years-old I had never seen a dead body, but nowadays, young people are regularly exposed and play with death like in the films they see on TV.”

Muhindi also underlined that life in the army can destroy the culture of respect and age. Ex-combatants, including minors, who are regularly exposed to violence, including sexual violence, can be difficult to reintegrate.
Recently, one boy firmly refused to be placed in a host family “if there were no girls, and beautiful ones”, Muhindi told IRIN.

But Bakuluea stresses that, “The erosion of traditional values among the youth is strongly related to the collapse of the economy. As a result, many young people can’t afford to settle and are still not married even though they have reached their thirties. Many boys hang out in bands and organise themselves in armed clandestine networks, making a living out of illegal trading and as “coupeurs de route” (road bandits). Some come from the militias where they acquired the knowledge of warfare and a susceptibility to violence.”

Dieudonné, 23, from Beni territory, lives on the streets of Goma making a living from informal trade. He told IRIN that he first entered the Mayi-Mayi militia group to “defend his country against foreign invaders” in 1998. As his unit refused integration into the national army, they had to fight against the FARDC: “One day I was wounded and tired of fighting. The FARDC were heavily armed and I could see death coming. I managed to escape in town. I don’t want to go back to my village because the militiamen can find me.”

For Dieudonné, and many others like him who lost years of their childhood to being part of a militia group, life continues to be a day to day struggle to carve out a meager existence in an environment where security and acceptance cannot be taken for granted.


[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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