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Interview: Congolese sanctuary offers child soldiers hope of readjustment

Years of civil war and poverty have turned more than 30,000 Congolese children into soldiers. Many are orphans with nowhere to turn to. Achim Koch, of the German development agency GTZ, runs a special place for them.

Achim Koch

Achim Koch directs operations for the German relief program GTZ in Congo

Many Congolese child soldiers have lost their homes and families, and are alone in a country where 62 million people are malnourished and mostly without access to health care or education.

Achim Koch directs a team from the German development agency GTZ in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has runs several projects aimed at reintegrating child soldiers into society. Deutsche Welle's Peter Zimmerman spoke to him.

Peter Zimmerman: When you're confronted with a child who has been to war, what do you see?

Achim Koch: They're very peaceful… very peaceful. All of them have been forced to go to the army – to the miliz. That means they are very lucky that they came back out of it. And now they get a possibility to find another existence in society besides being a soldier.

Former child soldiers learn electrical skills

Child soldiers need to learn a skill to reintegrate isuccessfully into society

Supposing they have that good fortune… it seems very difficult for them to find their way back into society. Is the society they are coming back to peaceful?

No. We're dealing with a very fragile situation – there is no presence of any kind of 'state' in this area. Therefore, of course, it is not peaceful. But after that long period of war, everybody is really very happy that the war is finished and now they can live – more or less – in stability.

What questions does a child who has come out of war ask?

They have no questions. They have no remarks. They have no demands. They just wait to see if it's possible to get some help, some money and some protection. But they do not ask by themselves.

How do you come together with child soldiers for first time?

Well, we have an open space in an area of Congo. Our space is open for everybody with all protections necessary against unknown circumstances. They come, stay and look around themselves. Step by step we start to discuss what can happen next.

Kindu, Congo

Kindu, Congo: Some 62 million people in Congo are malnourished

What can happen next?

It depends on their situation. If they have been forced to go to the army and leave primary school, they can get the possibility to finish primary school with a UNICEF program. If they finished primary school before becoming child soldiers, they might be interested in working to earn money. That means giving them a professional education. We offer more than 35 possibilities including traditional jobs like a carpenter, tailor or fisherman. They might learn to become technicians and repair bicycles, motorbikes or even lorries. They can also get a higher professional education.

In general, knowledge has been killed along with people. For instance, they might not know that if they start to construct a chair, they will need nails. They don't have any knowledge of how it works – so many of the older people are dead. That is a situation which can be observed in all professional areas in eastern part of Congo.

It seems very difficult to find out what a child who has no hope and is very quiet needs. What are the practical difficulties you have in trying to help these children?

Child soldiers are not only victims of violence, they are also violent themselves. They do not have any ethical base and have done terrible things. Now they're coming back into a society and learning that everything they did is out of line with any kind of ethical way of thinking.

A Congolese child participating in a drum circle

War eradicated vast amounts of knowledge as people died

Do you have situations where somebody later comes to you at some stage to tell you about their development? Do they feel you have given them a chance or an opportunity to leave something horrible behind?

Well, this is not their way. They would never come and tell me they have succeeded or even thank me. But I am very often invited to their marriages and when their children are born. And there are many children with my name! I think this is also one way to show something like that.

Marriage is the end of their integration. When they are married, have a home and have their first babies, they are settled and reintegrated in society.

At the beginning the children are quiet. What do they ask for later on?

It's very simple. They would like to have a house – a roof over their heads – a wife and children. They want to be able to send their children to school and get medical attention if their wife or children are sick. They don't want to have to pay for it because they have no money. Often we are able to give them land, a house, seeds and tools. We teach them how to farm, because everybody forgot during the war.

Author: Peter Zimmermann / gps
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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