A difficult return to civil life for Kasai children used in armed conflicts

Between doubt and certainty

Since April 2017, the support centre for children in difficult situations, part of the National Catholic Children’s Bureau (BNCE), a UNICEF partner organisation, has taken in 90 children in Kananga.

The majority of them were removed from the tribal chief Kamuina Nsapu’s militia, which is spreading terror in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had until then been spared from the violence which has affected the country over the last twenty years. The others have been taken from the FARDC, who were preparing to incorporate them into their ranks.

A centre helping children to rebuild their lives

The BNCE has managed to reunite 51 children with their families. The remaining 39 spend their days in the centre, where they benefit from material and psychological support in order to help them rebuild their lives: study sessions, practical training, someone to listen and offer psychosocial support, prayers, meals and recreational activities.

“The centre’s aims are to help the children to transition from military life to civil life, to eradicate the feeling of power which weapons and magico-religious practices have instilled in them, to aid their reintegration into study or work and, ultimately, to support a conflict-free return to their families,” summarises Pierre Cilengi, the BNCE psychologist.

A return to their families that many children fear

Dupon, aged 16, explains it like this: “I’m worried now. What will my family think? What am I going to say to them? I fought but I didn’t achieve my aim. I’m going back empty-handed.”

All the children joined Kamuina Nsapu’s militia in the hope of getting their families out of poverty, expecting an easy victory due to the tribal chief’s mystical powers. These powers were supposed to protect fighters from bullets and give them the strength to conquer their enemies, with the help of “magic sticks” which transformed into lethal weapons.

Dupon joined the rebel movement at the very beginning. After 10 months of fighting, he became disillusioned: “There were dead bodies everywhere. The soldiers massacred our families. I thought it would never end.”

Towards a new life: between doubt and certainty

So, on April 14 2017, Dupon decided to go to the Kananga stadium to lay down arms, accompanied by 60 other militiamen, 17 of whom were minors. These would be the first children to be taken in by the support centre.

Amongst them was Junior, aged 15, who joined the rebel movement in November 2016 after having lost his elder brother, who was stopped by the army and, he believes, probably killed. Junior is still influenced by a feeling of vengeance and the mystico-religious dialectic of the militia.

He expresses no guilt for having taken lives: “That doesn’t bother me because my brother was killed by soldiers.” He says he agreed to quit the militia because “the big chief asked [him to].”

“Now, if he asks me, I’ll return to fighting. I can’t disobey him as he has put his mystic power in me. To disobey him would mean the annihilation of my power.”

For all that, with help from the centre, Junior has decided on a profession: he wants to join his father in Kinshasa and become “a talented, really experienced chauffeur.” In order to do this, he says, “First I need to return to Kamuina Nsapu’s village so that he can free me from his power.”

The issue of children associated with armed forces and groups in the DRC

According to a UNICEF study, more than 20,000 children have been freed from armed forces and groups in the DRC over the last 10 years.

Thanks to Sweden (SIDA), the USA (USAID), Canada (CIDA), Japan (JICA), the Netherlands, Belgium as well as UNICEF France, Amade Mondiale, UNICEF Germany and CERF for their support to programmes assisting children released from armed groups, forces and militias.

Photo report by Gwenn Dubouthoumieu

Translated from French by Amber Sherman