In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a group of former child soldiers are starting to rebuild their lives through drumming and theatre. But NGO Human Rights Watch is reporting a new wave of forced recruitment.
Children as young as six are often trained for combat
Twenty-one-year-old Big is banging on his drums on the outskirts of Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Big was not always such a talented percussionist. Just five years ago he was handling guns, not drumsticks.
Big was 12 when he joined an armed group in Bukavu. He had just witnessed his brother being killed, and the prospect of revenge and money made joining up seem like a good option.
"I saw other children earning money with the army, so I decided to join," Big said. "Physically, they didn't treat me badly because they wanted me to be a healthy member of the group. But mentally they were not good to me, they gave me bad ideas."
A thousand young people have been recruited since September, says Human Rights Watch
It's a choice Big now wants to put behind him, and one that many children involved in armed groups - whether as soldiers, servants or sex slaves - never made in the first place. During the Second Congo War between 1998 and 2003, thousands of children voluntarily joined armed groups, or were conscripted or born into them.
Although the DRC is no longer officially at war, the country remains highly militarized as competition over resources, ethnic disputes and political ideologies sustain conflict. Now, a report from non-government organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggests the number of children being forcibly recruited is again on the rise.
'A thousand boys in four months'
Human Rights Watch researchers found that at least a thousand young men and boys have been forcibly recruited and trained for combat since September. At least 261 of them were under the age of 18, says Karina Tercsakean, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
The DRC government has tried to clamp down on child recruitment, but little has changed
"The real number is probably even higher," she told Deutsche Welle. "We've seen an increase in tensions in eastern DRC late this year. Some rebel groups have nominally been integrated into the army, but they maintain their separate structures, so they look to expand their ranks."
She added that rebel groups fighting the army also appear to be recruiting new child soldiers. Young men are abducted from their homes, or they disappear after officers have paid schools or football pitches a visit, says Tercsakean. Some boys are promised money or other benefits.
"What is especially worrying is that some of the young men were demobilized in the past, and now they're re-recruited," Tercsakean said. Human Rights Watch is calling on the DRC government to step up efforts to stamp out such recruitment. Although the practice contravenes local and international law, perpetrators often go unpunished.
Breaking the cycle
One group that has been involved in demobilizing children is the Association de Soutien de l'Opprime (Association for the Support of Oppressed Persons, or ASO), the drumming and theater group now helping rehabilitate Big.
Even after they've been demobilized, many young boys get re-recruited
Originally, the group was made up of former child soldiers but has expanded over the years to include other marginalized young people: children who have been raped, accused of witchcraft, or simply abandoned.
"When I started psychosocial activities, we found that the cultural activities such as music and theatre could help the youth start over," said ASO coordinator Juvenal Muderhwa. "They forget what they lived and rediscover their culture that was missing."
Often children who have fought with armed groups, been raped or accused of witchcraft are shunned by their family and community. They are left to fend for themselves and overcome their traumatic past alone, which can make recovery all but impossible.
Drumming up support
Drumming can help overcome trauma
"An important factor of overcoming a traumatic event is falling back on one's social network," said Anna Maedl, a clinical psychologist from the University of Konstanz, in Germany.
"When people feel supported by their community, when they feel that they are loved and that others understand what happened to them and that it was not their fault that will help them a lot."
Many of the children working with ASO, including Big, now participate in performances designed to tackle stigma and to discourage other children from considering joining armed groups.
"My goal is to change the ideas of young people like me," Big said. "I also would like [the communities we visit] to see that they too can change and develop, just like I did, through art."
Author: Tanya Castle, Nina Haase
Editor: Sophie Tarr