Thursday, May 24, 2007

Feature - Child soldiers still fight in Congo's new army

By Joe Bavier

GOMA, Congo, May 22 (Reuters) - Long after the end of Congo's civil war, child soldier Pierre was told he was finally going home.

The commanders in the renegade army brigade that forced him to fight said he would be free after a deal meant to bring peace to the violence-torn eastern province of North Kivu.

Instead, he was absorbed into the ranks of a new army brigade, one of hundreds of children being hidden within the ranks of Democratic Republic of Congo's government forces, according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.

"They lied. They told us we were going to be separated, and we would go to school," said Pierre, 17, after escaping from the Congolese army earlier this year.

"They took us to another base. It was just a way of keeping us from being seen," he said, declining to give his full name.

An estimated 33,000 children were fighting for armed groups at the height of Congo's 1998-2003 war.

Nearly four years after the official end to the conflict, some 4,000 children still remain active in army brigades, local militias and foreign rebel groups mainly in the volatile east, according to the United Nations.

The United Nations accuses five new government army brigades of hiding more than 300 children and sending some into combat, an act human rights campaigners say constitutes a war crime.

Following historic polls last year, President Joseph Kabila, Congo's first democratically elected leader in more than 40 years, vowed to deal with security issues in the east.

The creation of the five so-called mixed brigades was part of a scheme to integrate thousands of fighters loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda and end their near three-year campaign against government forces.

But the army initially blocked child protection workers from separating children early on in the process and many were quickly deployed in military operations.

"They are fast. They are brave. They are everything a commander would want. So they are definitely still an asset to the mixed brigades," said Claudia Seymour, child protection officer in North Kivu for Congo's U.N. peacekeeping mission.

THE "LUBANGA EFFECT"

Some rights observers say a new factor may be complicating efforts to separate children from Congo's armed groups.

In January, the Hague-based International Criminal Court decided there was enough evidence to put Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga on trial for recruitment and use of child soldiers, making his the first case to go before the new body.

"Anytime armies use children it is a war crime. Governments at the highest level can be held accountable for not removing them from their ranks," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

"There's a deliberate strategy now to hide the fact they are committing crimes," she said.

In some cases child soldiers are grouped together and hidden. But underage fighters are also coached by their commanders to say they are over 18, Van Woudenberg said.

It is a phenomenon that's come to be known in Congo as the "Lubanga Effect".

"There aren't any children. We aren't hiding any. Why would we?" Colonel Sultani Makenga, who commands one of the mixed brigades, told Reuters, despite witness accounts and lists of children's names taken at the mixing sites.

But as commanders hamper the efforts of children's advocacy groups, many child soldiers are finding their own way out.

"As of today, we have separated 141 (from the mixed brigades). The majority have escaped. They continue to show amazing courage," Seymour said.

After six children fled his group and the rest were punished as result, Pierre began plotting his own escape.

"In our group there were 25 kids. They took our uniforms and kept us together. I was in charge of guarding the others. I waited until it got dark and I ran away," he said.

"I didn't join up of my own free will, and I never want to be a soldier again."

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