Habimana, who dominates story telling sessions at Muhazi rehabilitation center, cannot tell his date of birth. He says he is 14 but he isn’t real sure. He isn’t sure about a lot of other things either.
Standing in an empty classroom on the shores of Lake Muhazi in Rwamagana District, Eastern Province, Habimana looked more relaxed and composed.
"No problem, life is good here," he says in a funny way.
Eastern Congo continues to be a sanctuary for extremists trying to launch incursions in Rwanda, in the so called efforts to overthrow the government. Different functions have thus recruited and used a number of children soldiers in their ugly activities.
Habimana is one of 36 Rwandan boys between 13 and 18 years old, who were forcefully recruited in the Interahamwe militias. He has spent close to six months at the centre, learning to read, receiving medical attention, food, new clothes and psychological counseling since he returned fro DRC forests.
Alex Rusagara, a Child Protection Specialist with the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission who supervises the center at Muhazi, says that the former child soldiers need this kind of intensive care to fit back into society.
"Some children were forced to rape women and later on kill them. The children would cut off body parts of their victims, a thing that affected their brains. It is incredible and psychotherapy is necessary to help them." he observed.
According to officials at the center, Rwanda has reunited 661 of them with their families through programs like the one today in Muhazi. They as a matter of necessity have to undergo a rehabilitation program prior to rejoining the families.
As a boy, Habimana was recruited into the Mayi -Mayi militias to fight against the Congolese government. In one of their battles, his gun ran out of bullets. This is when he was shot in the arm and had to stay behind. It was a blessing in disguise because he took the opportunity to escape into the forest.
"I didn’t feel the pain until I sat down in the forest after escaping the attack," he said. His arm is still being treated and there are indications that it will heal soon.
He eventually reported to MONUC (Mission des Nations Unies au Congo) offices and arrangements were made to bring him back to Rwanda.
Ali Mugema, a social worker at the centre, says that the children arrive from the Congolese forests when wild and miserable.
"They have unusual behaviors characterised by aggressiveness. We discuss with them and create some kind of trust", he said.
Mugema is a specialist who classifies children according to age so that a special treatment is offered accordingly.
He also uses a psychological analysis to unearth what the children soldiers were doing in the forest so that an advice is passed to their councilors in advance.
Some children soldiers were actively involved in combat operations while others were only used as slaves to carry their superior’s bags.
They are identified by applying probing questions and answers like the ones below, Mugemana clarifies.
"Yeah, we were shooting," said Eric, laughing in disbelief. He reflects on how he held a Kalashnikov and killed civilians to take what he wanted.
He adds that, "We would go to look for food and women. We were always shooting bullets…many of us would die there."
According to Mugemana, such words are enough to help you classify the ex-soldiers.
Eric like many other rehabilitated child soldiers is happy to be back in Rwanda.
"I’m happy that I’m going home to join my parents," he said.
But he left behind his one-year old son and wife. He says that he misses them a lot but he is ready to continue life without them. He wants to be a farmer and will begin with goats.
"I can’t do business because I never went to school," he said. He was never given a chance to go to school and therefore cannot be blamed for the choice. That is why some human rights activists have been calling FDRL leaders to be tried for crimes against children.
When asked if he longed to go back to Congo, Eric swore in these words; "I will never go back to the DRC because the rebels would kill me instantly.
He adds that, "I think they would kill me if I rejoined them because I took their gun. But if they ever attacked, I could help Rwanda to fight them", he said.
According to the Coordinator of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Program, Faustin Rwigema, an estimated 1,800 Rwandan child soldiers are still living in Congolese forests with the Front Démocratique de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) militias.
He continues to remark that, FDLR recruits children and the only way to stop this practice is to put in place tough restrictions against the rebel leaders.
Otherwise, children continue to be forced into combat operations and the only alternative left is to use force and push FDLR rebels into submission.
If not children will continue to be abused and held hostage by the Hutu extremists in the jungles of DRC. FDRL leaders have opted for the Joseph Kony style in northern Uganda.
"Any one who tries to escape from the militias is shot dead," said one of the children at Muhazi Centre, Nshimiyimana.
Nshimiyimana who is 16 years old now, joined FDLR militias in 2000 and managed to escape after 8 years. He indeed remained in an evil environment for long. That is why the government found it worth while to put them on a rehabilitation program before they are integrated in the society
"The children can’t be allowed into the community any how. Both the children and the community have to be prepared first. At the end of the three month training, children go home with household materials like clothes, blankets, and food. Those without families stay at the centre until when their relatives are traced. This is done with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross".
he reintegration process continues in their communities where children join schools or vocational training centers with the help of the demobilization commission.
However, many children at Muhazi centre didn’t have time for school and it may be a bit difficult for them to rejoin normal school system. That is why most of them talk about becoming drivers, farmers, and etcetera.