A few years ago, as bloody violence raged through his town, Mark, a former child soldier, wielded different tools. Tools of war and destruction.
Background to a bloody conflict
In 2016 an armed conflict broke out in Kasai Central, one of the 26 provinces that make up the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The conflict, which killed over 3,000 people and displaced 1.6 million more, arose after tensions between traditional authorities and state authorities escalated.
When a traditional leader was killed in a police raid on his house, his followers vowed revenge. The violence that ensued developed into a fully-fledged uprising, with fighters taking arms against the Congolese military. Violence between communities was also rampant, with different armed groups fighting against one another.
The conflict stands out for the alarmingly high number of children and young people who were directly involved in the fighting. UNICEF estimates that at least 60 per cent of the combatants who took up arms against the government were below the age of 18.
Mark was one of them.
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The decision to fight
Mark was 17 years old in 2017 when the fighting reached his hometown of Kananga, the provincial capital of Kasai Central. Both of his parents were killed in the fighting and he was forced to drop out of school and move in with his grandmother as a result of the tragedy.
Since militia leaders recruited children and teenagers, young people in towns and cities were often suspected of being militia members. Mark recalls trying his best to avoid getting caught up in the violence. When government soldiers made their regular rounds to flush out armed fighters living amongst civilians, Mark and all the other young people would flee to the bush and hide from them.
One day however, Mark was caught by soldiers who accused him of being an armed fighter. He was brutally interrogated but managed to escape and return home. It was then that he made a life-changing decision.
“If they are going to treat me like a fighter even when I am not one, then I might as well join the fight,” Mark says, recalling the thought that pushed him to finally take up arms.
Potions and amulets
The recruiter that Mark met with didn’t need to spend much time making his case. Mark had made up his mind and was ready to join up. He was given potions and amulets that he was told would make him bullet-proof and invincible.
“I really believed what they told me. I believed that the mystical potions and charms would make me more powerful than my enemies. All my fear disappeared,” says Mark.
Mark was sent to the front. He is not proud of the things that he was asked to do. They have left him with psychological scars that he admits he will live with for the rest of his life.
Willy Onyima is a local leader in Mark’s neighbourhood. He explains why so many children and youth were involved in the conflict.
“So many children were not able to go to school anymore,” he says. “Many parents were really struggling during the conflict and could not afford to have their children in school. Many parents lost their jobs, others lost their lives.”
“With so many children out of school it was easy for recruiters to convince them to take up arms. They lied to them, they bribed them, they offered them food and made big promises of a better future if their goals were achieved.”
The painful aftermath of war
Today the province of Kasai Central is relatively calm. The worst of the fighting stopped in 2019 with the inauguration of a new president in DR Congo, Felix Tshisekedi.
The president comes from the neighbouring province of Kasai Oriental, and those who took up arms against the government felt that this change in national leadership would ultimately lead to the goals they sought.
Displaced people returned home to rebuild their lives, often starting from scratch, having lost all of their possessions in the conflict. Sadly, the children and youth involved in the conflict may have lost something even more valuable: their innocence.
Having dropped out of school years earlier, many young people never returned. As a result, they remained unemployed and idle.
“The violence is over but the situation is bleak. Even people who graduated from university are without work. Things are really tough,” confesses Mark.
Helping young people to move past the pain
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) team in DR Congo is responding directly to the plight of the children and youth affected by Kasai Central’s conflict. Through a youth vocational project, we are providing young people with training and helping them to learn a trade.
Theodore Ngalamulume is NRC’s Youth Project Officer in the province. He sheds light on the reasoning behind our intervention.
“What we want for these youth that have known so much pain, is for them to gain employment … [to] help them move past and forget all the atrocities that they have experienced. We want them to be able to take responsibility for their lives and face all the challenges they will encounter in their communities.”
After a selection process led by the community, we chose 200 of the most vulnerable young people to take part in the project, with an equal number of boys and girls.
We researched which employment sectors were most in demand in Kananga, and settled on metalwork, masonry and construction, food processing, and culinary skills and restauration. We then identified appropriate training centres and took care of the enrolment process.
The participants received six months of professional training followed by three-month-long internships. We provided the youth with basic kits containing the tools they needed to carry out their jobs, from hammers and trowels for the masons, to pots, pans and other utensils for the culinary trainees.
We also gave them training in life skills, with modules on how to build quality interpersonal relationships and team spirit, as well as leadership and entrepreneurship skills. Our final assistance was in the form of a small financial sum to help them get started with their business.
A future worth fighting for
Mark chose to train as a mason and go into the field of construction. He had always wanted to make a living with his hands.
“It’s a line of work where I can be my own boss,” he says. “Now that I have been trained, I can build houses. If my neighbour has to get some construction work done, I can do it for them and earn something in the process. And I can use this money to provide for myself and for my family.”
Mark knows that challenges remain. He shares that one of the major challenges for him and the other newly trained youth is that they must now pay taxes that they can barely afford to cover. Our youth team in Kasai Central is negotiating with local authorities to see if there is a way that this can be waived in light of their situation.
But despite the challenges, Mark is filled with confidence that his future is now in his hands. This is a future he is willing to fight for.
* Name changed to protect his identity due to the sensitivity of this story. All photos intentionally avoid showing his face.