Former child soldiers’ tales of life in DR Congo jungles

Christine Ingabire is a Rwandan teenager born 19 years ago, in Katoyi, one of the four districts of Masisi territory, in DR Congo’s North Kivu Province.

The shy teen is one among the numerous child soldiers forcefully conscripted by anti-Rwanda militia groups in eastern DR Congo, where the latter have wreaked havoc for years.

Three years ago, militia scouts in her community rounded up all the youth – the majority being girls – and led them to a militia’s training base.

Asked how many were taken with her, Ingabire looked up, paused a bit, and said: “We were so many.”

“We had two groups of new recruits. In my group, we were 104. All girls! There were only about 20 boys.”

A group of demobilised combatants during a tailoring training session at the Mutobo Demobilisation and Reintegration Centre in Musanze District.

It was in late 2017, she said, recalling that soon after their two and a half months of military drills, the young fighters were sent home for a short break and then dispatched to various locations for duty.

Ingabire might not be acquainted with much about regional geopolitics but fully knows she belonged to the CNRD militia group. The FLN, its military wing, raided a village in Nyaruguru District in June 2018, and was also behind another attack in Nyungwe Forest end that year.

The CNRD/FLN parted ways with the FDLR – remnants of the perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi – in end May 2016 and started a recruitment campaign of its own to boost its numbers.

“After training, I was then sent to the Morane section,” Ingabire said, but when asked about the section, she seemed to know little about the man called Morane.

Morane is the nom de guerre used by the FLN/CNRD deputy commander, Barnabé Sinayobye, a former FDLR/FOCA commander. In 1994, Sinayobye who hails from the former Gikongoro prefecture fled to DR Congo and settled in Bulongi camp where he continued his earlier abandoned senior military officers’ training.

When their camps were destroyed, he fled to Congo-Brazzaville. In November 1998, he resurfaced in DR Congo. In September 2000, he attended the University of Lubumbashi where he studied history for two years.

Later, in 2002, he resumed his assignments within FOCA.

Ingabire’s overall commander was a man known as Jeva, another alias.

His real names are Antoine Hakizimana, a former senior commander of the FOCA headquarters battalion who hails from the former Cyangugu prefecture. He also went to university in Lubumbashi and studied medicine.

Jeva is the commander of the group’s units which, in the recent past, wreaked havoc in Kalehe territory.

When the Congolese army stepped up its offensive against anti-Kigali terror groups in the country’s east, it appears that many Rwandans saw a chance to flee from their erstwhile masters.

It is common knowledge that many who want to return home are actually kept hostage by the militia groups.

“I came on my own accord,” she said when asked why she decided to risk a return home recently.

Ingabire got a rare chance to escape when she went home to look after her very sick elder brother.

About a month after her brother regained strength, she heard that a team had been sent to take her back to the front. At night, she took off to the nearby UN military base.

Soon after, her brother, Bosco Iradukunda, followed.

“I couldn’t take it anymore; life in the jungle was unbearable. I was fed up doing the work we did,” she said, explaining that part of her day-to-day assignment included manning a heavy four-barreled machine gun – the only one – in their senior commander’s unit.

It was a rough and tough life as she was always moving with a Kalashnikov as well as hastily dismantling and carrying the heavy parts of their big gun whenever they changed location.

“Besides the heavy loads, there was no food. Getting clothing was a problem too. Imagine a life without soap and skin lotion, and all the things a girl needs.”

They turned us into their wives’

“And we were given pills so that we couldn’t get pregnant. Some girls got pregnant and their parents didn’t like that. You know; we lived with men. They planned it such that every platoon had girls,” Ingabire said.

The most difficult thing about being a girl in a militia group, she said, “was that they turned us into their wives.”

This is what actually made her decide to call it quits, and find a way out of the jungle.

An officer called Juma, she recalls, wanted to take her for a wife.

“I heard that he was killed among those who recently died at the battle.”

Nonetheless, Ingabire lights up when talking about, among others, how relatives from Rubavu District visited her at the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission Centre in Mutobo, Musanze District. She visited them too, Ingabire said, giving a broad grin.

Undeterred by her age, Ingabire said her dream, soon after her time in Mutobo, is to have a chance to go to school and rebuild her life.

“I want to start school and then, midway, perhaps, if necessary, I want to go back to work.”

Asked which kind of work she was referring to, she quickly said: “the army of course, but this time, the national army.”

Can you be happy when you are removed from school?

Unlike Ingabire whose parents are alive, Vedaste Kwibuka, also 19, never met his father who died before he was born.

His mother, Beatrice Mukamana, he said, is among the hundreds of militia dependants accommodated at Nyarushishi Transit Centre in Rusizi District.

The last born in a family of seven was also forced into the same militia group in 2017 when he was 17.

“We were in Faringa, in Rutchuru. I was then in secondary school. I was in senior one and then we were told that we would be joining the army.”

Faringa, the group’s initial headquarters, is where the CNRD was formed before relocating to South Kivu.

Young militiamen picked him, and several others, in the wee hours of the morning.

“They found us in bed and, one would think they were ordinary guests but then I was told to put on my boots, grab a blanket and follow them. You couldn’t ask much because you knew why they had come for you,” he said.

His short military course lasted two months. Thereafter, young boys like him were taken for ‘internship’ – they were posted in locations where Congolese Mai Mai warriors were a threat “so that we could battle them and gain fighting experience.”

“The Mai Mai gave us a hard time; they were always mobile and caused us a lot of trouble.”

Kwibuka was never happy.

He explained: “Can you be happy when you are removed from school? No. when you join [the militia] the disappointment [about leaving school] eventually ends but later you always regret”.

After his brief war experience, Kwibuka was assigned as an escort to a senior officer. His routine duties, until he recently escaped, included normal housework – cooking, washing and other chores.

Life as a militia fighter is challenging, he said.

At the end of last year, Kwibuka and five other CNRD militiamen, including his elder brother connived to run away at night.

They were in a procession escorting a group of militia dependants – mostly women, old men and very young children – to safety since the militia was being overwhelmed by the Congolese army. All five, he said, are at the camp in Mutobo.

“We all wanted to come home.”

So, he said, they tricked their colleagues, ran away and signaled the UN Peacekeeping mission in the area which picked them and facilitated their repatriation.

“We even handed over our guns.”

According to official statistics, from 2016 to 2018, 33 child soldiers were returned home from DR Congo. 296 child soldiers have been registered since 2009.

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