Rwanda Child Soldiers

By Geoffrey Mutagoma,

KIGALI – Ten years after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, a generation of children continue to fight ideological wars against Rwanda from the Eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the children are orphans and held hostage by rebel groups consisting of the former Rwandan Army (EX-FAR) and other militia groups. However, over the years some children have left Rwanda to go to the DRC where they have voluntarily joined the armed groups.

The UN Mission sent to the DRC to oversee the implementation of the Peace Accords in that country is working along side the Rwandan government’s repatriation commission to demobilise, disarm and reintegrate both adult and child combatants into the Rwandan society.

But it is no easy task. However, every once in a while, a large number of children are able to travel to Rwanda and start a new life. In early January 2004, over ninety former child soldiers arrived at the Nyamagumba Child Soldiers Rehabilitation Camp near Ruhengeri in northern Rwanda. The camp is the first stop for these young Rwandans in their long road back to normal life. The children often return when they see adults doing so, as the case of Jean Claude Ntamakemwa illustrates.

“I was in charge of guarding the Mai-mai pharmacy in a place called Shabunda. Then we heard that our leader General Rwarakabije had returned to Rwanda. We decided to return as well.”

Life as a solider is difficult and many of the children learn many negative habits which they believe help them to cope.

“Sometimes when I felt bad thoughts coming my way, I could smoke one cigarette and they would go away. For example whenever I used to think about home, how I left my mother and such other things I would smoke and the thoughts would go away. I would think about my job,” Ntamakemwa says.

Thirteen year-old Jean Paul Ngendahayo Gasamagera became a soldier three years ago after the death of one of his parents in Gitarama province. He is one of the children who left Rwanda long after the genocide to go to the DRC and fight alongside the Mayimayi. Whilst in uniform, Jean Paul was injured by a bomb fragment. While recovering, he realised that many of the Congolese children in the army were going back to school, yet he and other Rwandans did not have this privilege. It was a realisation that changed his life and that of other Rwandan children fighting alongside him. According to Ngendahayo, he and others “decided to return and attend classes from our homeland.”

One of the children who returned home with him is Adrian Nshimiyimana. He explains the soul searching that the children often went through.

“We served in the army but later noticed we were doing nothing. We had no reason to fight. We were only spoiling our lives. The thing that hurt me most when I was in the Congo, was that I loitered in the forests wasting time when most kids my age back in Rwanda were busy in school,” he says.

Nshimiyimana says that one of the key obstacles for those who want to return is the propaganda within the rebel groups.

“Most of the people do not return because mature soldiers tell them lies that everyone who returns is either jailed for the rest of his life or that they are killed. They convince people to stay with them until the time they return. Most of the people believe this and stay. They also tell people that their families in Rwanda have been killed. This is the reason why most people stay in Congo,” he explains.

Fifteen year-old Francis Habiyaremye had a heart attack while in the army. His compatriot, Eulade Bavugirije was shot three times in the arm while on the frontline. They are both glad to be back.

“Life in Congo was difficult all the time. We lived and walked through thick muddy forests. In Rwanda we don’t have so many problems.”

So far, more than four hundred Rwandan child soldiers have been repatriated into Rwanda. They are a generation of lost innocence. At the rehabilitation centre efforts are usually made to assist them recover part of their childhood and put them back on the same footing as other children who are in proper schools. For many, the few classes they have in the rehabilitation centre are their first experience in disciplined school life. It prepares them to continue their schooling when they leave the centre after three months.

One of their teachers is Claudine Mukasensiyo. Her class typically has children who are at various levels of education and different ages.

“Some have never been to school before; others have been to classes between primary one and six. So I divide them in groups and deal with them according to the level they have.”

But there’s more to education than blackboard and chalk. These children also need special help to learn how to socialise and behave properly. The task falls to Ali Mugema, a social worker.

“These are children who lived in forests in a violent environment. So when they arrive, they are sceptical about their good reception. We have slowly shown them the love and care that children deserve. This has changed their behaviour,” he says.

Claudine agrees that there is a change in the attitude of her young charges.

“At first it was difficult. They behaved like rebels. They were rude and hostile. But we slowly managed to change them,” she notes.

Emmanuel Havugimana is the director of the centre. He has great hopes for the children who pass through the rehabilitation process.

“My first wish is that they continue school and become the future strength of this nation. The second is that they should teach other children what they learn from here so that no more children will separate from their families. They should be like ambassadors to the rest so as to avoid separation which is the main problem among Rwandans. They should share with other children their experience. If they achieve this, they will have contributed a lot to this country,” he states.

But even with all the efforts to prepare them for life in normal society, reintegration is usually hard.

Three years ago, Sebahutu returned from Congo where he was a soldier in the rebel forces of Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda fighting to overthrow the current Rwandan government.

He was in the rehabilitation camp for nine months. Then he went home to Kinigi, a village in Ruhengeri in the north of Rwanda. The first thing he had to learn is letting go of the false propaganda he had heard during his years in the rebel army.

“Back in Congo they used to tell us that everything here had changed; that everyone we knew had been killed. But when I arrived I found my parents alive,” Sebahutu says.

Although this is a positive step, he has other challenges that are not so easily dealt with. Sebahutu lives with his father and helps him work the field. He can’t afford to go to school.

“As you can see this is the right time for me to look for a living. But the major problem I have is that I’ve nowhere to base. If I got support from somewhere I would be happier,” he muses. Money is often a problem, as some parents lack the means to support their children when they return.

Despite the hardships, the reunions are still a happy experience. Kabagema Ka Ruheza will never forget the day his son came home. He says it was like a miracle.

“It was like Jesus’ resurrection! I spent 8 years without seeing my son. I was happy when he returned. When he was in the re-education camp, journalists used to tell me he is doing well and I thought it was a lie. One day, they called us to the district offices so that we could take our children home. It was really a miracle from God that we saw him back. It was like a resurrection,” he exclaims.

But Kabagema Ka ruheza has another son and a daughter still in Congo and he hopes he will get them back.

“I hope the government continues with the repatriation campaign. Maybe I can get my two children back. If I had the means I would request the government to intensify the mission to repatriate them,” he says.

Former rebel leader, General Paul Rwarakabije gave up his fight against the Rwandan government and opted to return home. He has been back in Rwanda since November last year. His return prompted many adult and child rebels from Rwanda to do the same. Today he asks the adults to consider what they are doing when they stop children from returning to their homes.

“Those who stop people from returning to Rwanda should try to understand the present situation especially with these children who can neither read nor write. They should let them return home. They should let the refugees return. Even the soldiers should return home peacefully without any fighting,” Rwarakabije urges.

Colonel Jerome Ngendahimana is a former rebel spokesman who returned with General Rwarakabije late last year. He too is aware of the immense problems that the children face and the need for more to be done by both sides to help the process of rehabilitation and reintegration.

“These children who return need particular attention and help so that those who are still outside are sure that when they return they will get more than what they have. It’s true they have nothing where they are but they need to see a difference. Most of those who return can neither read nor write. Some are already in their twenties! If there was a fixed way to explain clearly how these children will be assisted, the others would return in large numbers despite the fact that the mature soldiers try to stop them,” Ngendahimana reckons.

Alec Wargo is Child Protection Advisor for MONUC, the United Nations mission in Congo. He urges more involvement by all the parties in ensuring that more children are brought back.

“We are working on that with the government; to analyse a little bit more deeply what the concerns are on this side when they come back and then also having more cooperation with them sending the messages back. Especially we would like to work on child appropriate messages and appropriate needs of sensitization. Things like video and radio programmes cued particularly at those many vulnerable children,” Wargo says.

The Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission helps former child soldiers, by paying school fees for them when they return. But what the chairman Jean Sayinzoga wishes for most is that armies stop using children.

“I wish every army using children could recognise that they are spoiling their future. When you spoil the youth today, you are spoiling the future of your country. I wish everyone understood it that way, and the children are left to live in families and to continue with education to prepare for the future,” he says.


Geoffrey Mutagoma
Internews Justice and Rwanda Project
Tel: 585208
Mobile: 08531110


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