A girl forced into sex slavery becomes a young woman learning to fix cars. Her dream was simply to drive. Unobtrusive and quietly brave, a young boy returns from a life as a spy in a rebel camp and learns to be a carpenter. How does a child survive war and enter the civilian world?
These are the stories of 12 young people who survived the long-running wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo that have claimed, by one estimate, more than 5 million lives through violence and disease since the late 1990s. All were children or teenagers when they were ensnared by one of the dozens of rebel groups that have battled for supremacy in eastern Congo.
Some were kidnapped to become soldiers. Others enlisted to defend their village or because they had no food. Many of them became killers. Some were raped. All of them were traumatized by what they did and what they saw. Now, with Congolese and United Nations forces holding out hope for an end to the perpetual battles with rebels, these young adults are attempting to rebuild their lives.
Aid groups offer counseling and job training. Some have found apartments and jobs and think about marriage. But for others, the task is harder than they’d imagined. Here are their stories:
Abducted into sex slavery
Walking is a way of life in eastern Congo, where few people have cars or even bus fare. During the morning and evening commutes, people often crowd onto the roadways, leaving vehicles to drive down the middle.
For Brigitte Bazibuhe, attending high school meant walking nine miles each way. On a morning that changed her life seven years ago, she was late for school and found herself taking the long walk alone.
No one noticed when a group of armed men emerged from the forest and grabbed her. The men tied her hands in front of her and took her to their jungle camp. She was 13.
“I was very little,” recalled Brigitte, now 20. “There was nothing I could do.”
For the next three months, she was their sex slave.
“All of them wanted to have sex with me,” she said. “I suffered a lot, and I still suffer when I remember.”
She hung her head in embarrassment as she told her story.
The soldiers held her captive in a jungle encampment, perhaps 20 miles from her village, Kabare. She was constantly guarded but not tied up.
“When they wanted to have sex, they would take my arm and force me to have sex,” she said. “One would have sex, and after him, another and another and another. There was a mattress on the ground. It was every day and whenever they wanted.”
There were about 30 soldiers in the camp. No one would talk to her. She never learned what militia they belonged to or whom they were fighting. Their main activity appeared to be stealing food from villagers.
“I don’t know if there was any commander,” she said. “When I spoke to them, they were very angry. No one wanted to help me.”
One day, a soldier ordered her to fetch water from a stream.
She took a jerrican and, for once, no one followed her. When she reached the stream, she dropped the can and began running through the jungle as fast as she could. She reached a main road, and people there pointed her in the direction of her village. Certain that the soldiers were close behind, she ran all the way home. It took about four hours.
Her mother, who has high blood pressure, collapsed when she saw her.
“She didn’t know where I had been,” Brigitte said. “She thought I had died.”
After she returned home, Brigitte was too traumatized to attend school. Mostly, she sat and did nothing. This continued for several years.
“I found myself useless,” she said. “I was not a person. I was like a fool. Crazy.”
A year ago, she moved to Bukavu to live with her uncle. He heard on the radio about a training program for child victims of Congo’s long-running wars operated by Let Africa Live.
He brought Brigitte to the center, a dusty walled compound with workshops and offices on a main boulevard in the city. She was accepted into the program and began getting counseling and job training. After three months, she said, she began feeling comfortable. In December, she graduated from a nine-month course in restaurant management.
She now works as a server in a restaurant but on a recent day was helping out back in the kitchen. Wearing a white chef’s hat and a smock, she spoke grimly about her ordeal. But with her friends and instructor in the kitchen, she laughed and joked, displaying perfect teeth when she smiled.
She says she is happy she received her restaurant training but would like to finish high school.
She has no interest in getting married and doesn’t care how men might view her.
“You can’t trust men,” Brigitte said. “Accept me or not, I don’t feel I need them.”
Following his father’s path
Raphael Mutimanwa was 12 when he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Mudundu 40 militia. His father, a rebel commander, had been killed in combat. Without him, the family had no food or money.
“I chose to go because of my family’s situation,” he said. “We were very poor. I needed to eat.”
His biggest regret is killing six civilians.
By 15, Raphael was tall, tough and ruthless. He was named a deputy commander and put in charge of half a dozen other young soldiers.
“There was no formal structure,” he said. “When you are stronger, you become the commander of the group. I was among the stronger, and I was liked by our commander.”
Smoking marijuana, he said, helped put him in a state of mind in which he didn’t care what happened to others. Much of the boys’ mission was stealing goats and chickens from villagers. If someone argued, Raphael was quick to use his weapon.
“The gun was normal for me,” he said. “Just one minute and I was ready to shoot.”
He has a vivid recollection of killing a man who did not want to part with his hen.
“I went to his home,” he said. “I wanted to steal one of his chickens, and he said I could not. And he wanted people from the village to come and prevent me from taking the chicken. And so I shot him.
“I had a gun,” he added. “Who could stop me?”
At least once a month, he was locked up and beaten for not giving his commander everything he stole.
At various times, his militia fought both the army and the FDLR militia for control of hills in the Walungu region where gold was mined.
The worst for Raphael was when the army attacked.
“This was a bad situation I was living in,” he said. “We had to fight against the government. I was in charge, and I didn’t know what to do.”
When he was 17, he was among 400 rebels who defected to the army over differences with their leader. The army commander was happy to have new troops –but not child soldiers. Raphael and the other children were discharged.
He held an assortment of jobs over the next few years, including mining rare earth metals. In 2010, he heard about vocational training for former child soldiers and signed up to learn welding.
Now 25, he works in a small welding shop in Bukavu that overlooks Lake Kivu. He is helping his brother through school and is thinking about getting married.
He has many regrets, especially killing civilians, but is trying to put that behind him now that he has started a new life.
“I think it has begun to disappear from my memory,” he said. “Now that I am working, I am doing my best to forget.”
Pregnant sex slave
In the Congo, rape is a weapon of war, and Tatiana Lola is one of its many victims.
She was abducted in 2009 by the FDLR, which invaded her village of Nindja, about 45 miles from Bukavu.
Residents fled into the jungle, but the soldiers found them and rounded them up. They tied some of the village leaders to trees and slit their throats, then selected Tatiana and nine other girls.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said. She was 13.
They tied the girls’ hands behind their backs and marched them into the jungle. After two days, they reached the rebels’ camp.
The soldiers put them in a ramshackle house with other girls they had kidnapped. Altogether, there were about 25 girls ages 12 to 18.
“We were there every day,” Tatiana said. “They would bring us food. It was like we were in a prison.”
Sometimes, they were allowed out to look for firewood, but they had little opportunity to explore their surroundings. There were hundreds of soldiers, she said, possibly more than 1,000.
The house operated like a brothel.
“The men would come to the house, pick a girl and take her outside,” she said. “They were coming every day.”
The men took the girls to a shelter and raped them. Tatiana soon was pregnant.
One day, about four months after her kidnapping, the soldiers left the camp and all was quiet outside. The girls decided to escape. Their exit was a hole in the wall of the flimsy house.
Tatiana and four other girls climbed out. But before the others could join them, the soldiers began returning. The girls ran into the jungle, and the soldiers chased them, wildly firing their guns.
All five girls were pregnant. Tatiana was the youngest; the others were 14, 15, 16 and 17.
The girls hid in the dense undergrowth until they could no longer hear the soldiers and then slipped away. When they stopped to rest, they noticed blood on one girl’s clothing. A bullet had grazed her belly, but the wound was minor. The victim hadn’t noticed.
Tatiana reached her village two days later. At 13, she gave birth to a daughter. The girl is now 4 years old.
“My family was very sad,” said Tatiana, now 17. “But they knew it was not my fault, that I didn’t want this to happen.”
She enrolled in vocational training for child war victims and graduated in December from a seven-month course in sewing. She also received counseling on how to get along with people and avoid conflict.
“They were training us how to be humble, to be patient and how to avoid making trouble,” she said. “It helped me. Let Africa Live helped us to love one another like a family.”
Forced to become commander’s wife
At 19, Mugoli Shukuru wears blue coveralls to work. Her hands are stained with grease and oil. Even so, she looks elegant with hair tied back and a multicolored blouse peeking through the top of her jumpsuit.
She is as an auto mechanic in a country where female mechanics are rare. She enjoys working on cars, but her real motivation was not learning a trade. It was getting a chance to learn how to drive – and the feeling of freedom that comes with it – after her years in captivity.
Mugoli has been studying at Laissez l’Afrique Vivre, or Let Africa Live, a nonprofit in the city of Bukavu that provides vocational training and counseling for former child victims of Congo’s long-running wars.
She sat on a couch in the director’s office and told her story, weeping as she talked about the loss of her father and the brutality of her captors.
She realized too late that rebel soldiers had been stalking her.
The armed men came for her in the middle of the night and demanded that her family hand her over. They said they were taking her for their commander. She was 14.
Her father, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, said Mugoli wasn’t home. But the rebels said they’d seen her that day in her school uniform. The men went to her room and dragged her out. Her father continued to argue.
“Why is the commander looking for my daughter, who is still a child?” he asked.
Without warning, one of the rebels shot him dead.
The men tied Mugoli’s hands behind her back and led her from her village of Ziralo into the jungle. She was to be the commander’s wife.
Her new home was a primitive camp. There were no buildings, only shelters made of branches. Everyone slept on the ground.
The soldiers belonged to a mai mai, as local militias are called in the Congo. She never learned the group’s name or whom the band was fighting. There were about 50 soldiers and four girls in the camp.
“They were just little girls like me,” she said.
She was held captive there for two years. She belonged solely to the commander, a brutal man.
“He hit me every day,” she said. “He never said anything. I thought he would kill me.”
She became pregnant and gave birth to a girl when she was 15. A year later, she became pregnant again.
When she was days away from giving birth to her second child, the commander relaxed his guard. Mugoli took her daughter to the market to get food. When none of the soldiers followed, she made her escape.
She walked for two days with her daughter on her back before reaching safety. Two days later, she gave birth to her second daughter.
Soon after, she heard on the radio that Let Africa Live was offering vocational training for child war victims. She was accepted into the program and chose auto repair.
Mugoli said she has been receiving counseling, but she never talks about her experiences with others at the center, whether they were sex slaves like her or child soldiers.
“We don’t know each other’s stories because we never share them,” she said. “I can say there is no trust. I don’t know what is in the mind of my colleague. I don’t know what he would do with my secrets.”
Mugoli said she heard recently that the rebels who held her captive joined forces with a much larger militia, M23, before it was defeated in November by U.N. forces.
The commander died in battle.
But the rebel who killed her father – a man she saw in camp every day for two years – remains in the jungle. She said she has no hope of bringing him to justice.
“I know him, I know his name: Francois,” she said, burying her face in her arm and sobbing. “And I know he is still alive.”
Indoctrinated to be a killer
Gode Musore, who just turned 18, went to Let Africa Live in Bukavu two years ago for vocational education and counseling. He signed up for the only training course available: hairdressing.
To his surprise, he enjoyed the work.
“When I started doing it, I loved it,” he said.
He graduated in July and now has his own hairdressing business.
Only a few years ago, this hairdresser was a ruthless killing machine.
Wearing a green Michigan State Spartans T-shirt emblazoned with the team logo – the helmet of a warrior – he is not reticent about describing his combat experiences. Like a top athlete, he was good at what he did, and he reveled in the camaraderie of his unit in combat.
He regrets killing civilians, but at the same time, he knows he was indoctrinated by the rebels. Counseling helped him adjust to civilian life and recover from the brainwashing he received as a child soldier, he said.
He continues to suffer from disturbing nightmares that linger after he wakes up.
“It’s like I’m watching a film of what happened to me,” said Gode, also known by the nickname Eric. “I see blood, blood, blood.”
Just getting out of bed helps: “I have to get up and think about it,” he said. “It takes time to forget it, but after some minutes, I can.”
The armed men who invaded his home seven years ago gave the family a choice: Either Gode or his father could volunteer. Gode was 10; his father was 45.
When neither agreed to join the rebels’ cause, the soldiers took Gode and marched him into the jungle far from his village of Minova.
At first, the third-grader resisted becoming a rebel and looked for ways to escape. But eventually, he adapted to life as a child soldier. Armed with a lightweight submachine gun, he fought in battle after battle, slaying scores of soldiers and civilians. He fought first for the rebels and later for the government.
He doesn’t want to contemplate how many people he killed but said the number is far more than 40.
“I killed many people,” he said. “I have blood in my mind and on my hands. I feel bad, but sometimes I think it’s not my fault because I was sent by my commander.”
He belonged to a brigade of about 450 soldiers. Beatings were frequent. Many of his friends were killed. He was shot in the knees in separate battles. His commander performed surgery on him both times.
One of the most ferocious battles came when he was 13. Gode woke at 4 a.m. to the sound of enemy soldiers shooting his comrades as they slept. He grabbed his gun and raced to the fighting.
A rival force of about 300 soldiers had surrounded his brigade. His unit lost 30 men in minutes, but Gode and his comrades pushed back the attackers. The fighting continued all day.
The next morning, his brigade launched its own predawn assault. Gode said he was right where he liked to be: in the lead.
“The second day, we wanted revenge because they attacked us first,” he recounted. “We divided into small groups, and we attacked. My group was the first to reach their camp. I was among those who were just in front.”
This time, his brigade drove the enemy toward a village and into the open. Many villagers fled too late and were caught in the crossfire. Gode knows he shot some of them.
“I don’t know the number, but I know there were many,” he said. “I feel bad because of the civilians who died.”
Gode’s brigade was victorious and buried the dead, 47 from his side, 68 from the other. Then the soldiers celebrated.
“We got drunk,” he said. “We had meat. We took beer from the village. It was a big party. I was feeling good, because for me in that period, it was normal, I was fighting.”
Soon after, he was captured by government troops. The army kept him on as a child soldier for more than a year, sending him into several battles where he fought and killed. At 14, he was demobilized because he was a child.
“When I was taken to the jungle, I lost many opportunities,” he said. “If I didn’t join this armed group, I would be in high school today, but I lost this chance.”
Safer being a soldier
Kidnapped at 13 and forced to join a rebel army, Didier Asumani could see his chances of survival were slim carrying ammunition to soldiers during battle. He figured he would be safer carrying a gun. He chose to be a soldier.
He became very proficient at killing.
“They gave me a gun, and I used it,” he said. “I killed a lot of people. It must be more than 50. I didn’t like to kill. But if our commander gave an order to kill someone and you didn’t do it, you would be killed by the commander.”
Didier was abducted from his school by one of the most vicious militias, the FDLR, which was fighting to control the province of North Kivu in eastern Congo.
“They wanted us to be rebels like them,” he said.
His unit had about 500 soldiers. Nearly a third of them were boys, and the youngest was 12, he said. Most of the boys were ordered to carry supplies and resupply the fighters with bullets during combat.
He witnessed the brutality of the rebel leaders early. When his unit seized a village, the commander ordered Didier’s friend, Garcon, to kill one of his own relatives. Garcon refused, and the commander shot him dead.
Didier said he was fortunate that the commander didn’t order him to kill Garcon because he would have refused and would have been killed, too.
The commander, he said, “was a very bad person.”
In the camp, he said, the boys were beaten daily and their only way to get food was to steal it from villagers. Civilians who refused to hand over their goods were shot.
“When they resisted and we wanted to loot something from them, we had no choice but to kill them,” he said. “But first, we would ask them if they could give us something.”
During one firefight, Didier was shot in the right thigh, but the wound was not deep.
Two years ago, he fought against government forces during an intense three-day battle. With his unit on the verge of defeat and his comrades fleeing into the jungle, he surrendered. He was 15.
“Everyone ran away to save themselves,” he said. “When I saw I was about to be killed, I put my arms and my gun over my head.”
His captors saw he was a child and handed him over to MONUSCO, the U.N. mission to stabilize Congo. He was brought to a rehabilitation center in Bukavu and eventually offered the chance to learn welding.
“I was very happy to come and join the training,” he said. “It was another chance for me. I was able to take a bath and have some clothes.”
Now 17, he has graduated and is working at a welding shop.
“It’s a good job,” he said. “I am able to support myself.”
He is philosophical about what happened to him.
“Things happen that you can’t control,” he said. “All you can do is pray to God.”
Nathalie Kasaki Banyanga was 12 when she decided to join a rebel army based in the jungle near her village.
“It was just like deciding to commit suicide,” she said.
As a rebel, she proved to be a resourceful girl.
She enlisted in the Gid mai mai in 2009 because the group was fighting the FDLR, which repeatedly attacked her village and twice burned down her family’s house. Her father had died of malaria, her mother could not take care of her, and she had no food or money.
The rebel camp seemed to offer a place of safety. But once she enlisted, she could not leave. Life in the camp was hard. The rebels slept on the ground and lived in shelters with branches for roofs. When it rained, they got wet.
She said she was beaten many times for stealing food or money.
“You could be beaten for stealing something,” she said. “But tomorrow, you would be in need again, so you would steal again.”
Nathalie first was ordered to help cook food. But her organizational skills soon became apparent, and she was assigned to oversee the acquisition of food for half the camp. They called her Mama Quartermaster.
“I would send the lower-rank soldiers to go and fetch the food,” she said. “They would go around looting and stealing from people.”
If the soldiers came back with too little, she said, she would return with them to oversee the stealing.
Her only experience in combat came soon after she enlisted. When her unit came under attack, she shot and wounded a man. She could tell the bullet struck him because of the dull thud it made when it hit.
It troubled her long afterward.
“I wasn’t at rest after that moment, and at night, I would dream about the soldier I had hit,” she said.
During an argument over food, Nathalie said, a friend shot her in the leg. The friend, nicknamed Le Coucou because she was so absent-minded, didn’t realize her gun’s safety was off. Le Coucou was severely beaten for her mistake.
In the militia, Nathalie said, the girls were not raped. Boys and girls could choose to have sex together, she said, or abstain and hang out with their friends.
“If you chose not to be with a boy,” she said, “you could just be with the group.”
It took two years for her to win permission to leave, and that was only because her mother came to the camp and pleaded with her commander. Nathalie was 14.
When she returned to her village of Kashebere in the Masisi region, there were more than two dozen boys and girls who were former soldiers or sex slaves and were receiving assistance from the United Nations. Some were as young as 12.
Now 17, she is living in Goma.
In December, she completed 10 months of training as a seamstress at ETN, the vocational training program.
But Nathalie, a second-grade dropout, would like more than a vocational education. She hopes to have a chance to return to school.
“Once you know how to read and write,” she said, “you can run your own business.”
The perfect spy
Vainqueur Faida doesn’t attract a lot of attention. He always has been small for his age, and he can be inconspicuous when he wants to be.
At 12, it made him the perfect spy.
Now 16, Vainqueur sat at a wooden desk in a large empty classroom at ETN. His hair is cut close to the scalp, contributing to his look of childlike innocence. He fidgeted and squirmed in his chair like any teenage boy as he described the two years he spent as part of a rebel militia.
He was playing soccer with his friends when the FDLR militia came to his town, Masisi. When gunshots rang out, the boys raced home. Vainqueur reached his house and found his mother dead.
The soldiers killed her when she tried to keep them from looting the family’s home. His father was heartbroken and withdrew from the world.
Left to fend for himself, Vainqueur joined a local militia that was fighting the FDLR and other militias. He already knew some villagers who had joined. The commander called himself Gen. Bwira, which means “friend” in the local Kihunde language. He commanded a force of more than 1,000 soldiers.
For Vainqueur, Gen. Bwira came to be a second father.
The general soon noticed how well Vainqueur could blend in and assigned him to become a spy.
After leaving Gen. Bwira’s camp, he would dress like a soldier from the opposing force and walk into the enemy village miles away. Once there, he would infiltrate meetings, his presence and figure so slight he would go unnoticed.
More than once, he learned about an upcoming attack in time to warn his general, he said. He never was caught.
“It wasn’t dangerous at all,” he says now. “It was just a good job.”
One of his fellow soldiers would be waiting nearby to help him if he got in trouble, but that never happened.
“The secret was that no one could ever guess that I was a soldier,” he said. “In the village, I wouldn’t be noticeable at all.”
When he was 14, a delegation from the Red Cross came seeking the release of any children in the camp.
“They asked my commander for me, and so he gave me up,” he said. “They were going around all the groups asking for little boys like me.”
He spent three months in a rehabilitation program for child soldiers. On the day he graduated, Gen. Bwira came to the ceremony.
“It was nice to see him,” Vainqueur said. “He was happy to see me. He took my certificate and read it.”
The general told him that the fighting in the area had stopped and their enemies had fled.
“He is still doing his job of being a general,” he said. “They are just protecting the population.”
Vainqueur returned to Masisi and lived there until a recruiter from ETN, a retraining program in Goma, came looking for child victims of the war. Vainqueur signed up for vocational training.
At 16, he is happy learning carpentry but wonders whether his new skills will be enough to keep him from rejoining the rebels. He would rather be in high school, he said, where he could learn to read and write better.
“Sometimes, I think about going back to the militia,” he said. “If God helps me, I can have a better life and get an education. But in the end, if I don’t get an education, I think I will go back.”
Performer of magic rituals
Saddam Balingine was 6 in 1997 when a local militia recruited him to perform magic rituals that would protect rebel soldiers from harm in battle.
By 7, he said, he began carrying an AK-47 into combat and killed his first man. As a teenager, he rose to become a top commander in the rebel force.
He was demobilized at 17 along with other child combatants. But now, five years later, he says the government is hounding him because of his longstanding ties to his former militia.
He has struggled to adjust to civilian life and wonders if he will be able to live down his past as a child soldier.
Being part of a militia, at least, gave him a sense of belonging.
Much about his unit’s magic rituals is secret, he said, including the reason he was chosen to perform them. But he said he and the soldiers believed they protected them from bullets.
He said he collected and cooked herbs and plants to make potions and powders in accordance with instructions he received from his dead ancestors.
“The ancestors would speak to us, and we would speak to them,” Saddam said. “They would say many things: ‘Bring herbs or this plant.’ And they would tell us how to use them.”
According to tradition, he said, the person performing the rituals must be a virgin.
“The aim of it all is to enable the soldiers to shoot without being struck,” he said.
“We were giving them the power not to be hit.”
He continued performing the rituals after becoming a soldier. He killed many people in battle, he said, but has no idea how many.
“In war, you just kill people without counting,” he said.
Alliances among the rebel groups and government forces shifted frequently over the 20 years of war. Sometimes, Saddam’s mai mai fought against the army, and sometimes they were on the same side. He said he rose in the ranks to become the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel and was in charge of operations.
After he left his militia in 2008, Saddam returned to his village of Kichanga in North Kivu province, about 50 miles from the city of Goma. He converted to Christianity and, with some regret, gave up his magic rituals.
But he said the Congolese army did not like seeing a former rebel commander around and threatened to kill him. He stayed with his mai mai on and off until 2010, when he went to Goma for training as a mechanic at ETN.
Last summer, he said, he was arrested in his village, held for six weeks and beaten for information.
He said his Congo army interrogators beat him frequently and placed pieces of metal between his fingers and squeezed them together. The pain was excruciating, he said. “Now my fingers are fine, but at the time, I couldn’t hold on to anything,” he said.
Lately, he has been living on and off at the camp of his former mai mai.
Despite his earlier training as an auto mechanic, Saddam, now 22, said he has been unable to find work.
“I got trained, but it didn’t help me a lot after,” he said. “In our country, getting a job is very rare. If I was able to get a job, I would never think of going back to the militia.”
Tempted by militia life
For Nsii Maombi, the transition to civilian life has been difficult. She spent years as a teenage bandit who killed people for their clothes and cash.
Now, she is studying catering and restaurant management, but she has in recent months seen three of her friends drop out of job training and counseling.
They returned to the jungle to live with rebels because they missed being able to steal what they wanted.
“I was telling them, ‘Don’t go back. It’s a bad life there,’ ” she said. “But they didn’t listen to me.”
She said she is still in touch with the three girls who left.
“We are all the same age, but the other girls had difficulty adapting to life here. To dress was difficult, to get clothes you want,” she said. “They returned. They are stealing. It’s their life, and if they want to return to a bad life, that’s their choice.”
Now 19, Nsii is starting to come to grips with the harm she caused. She wrestles with the wrong she did and talks about making amends. But she admits that she is tempted by the easy life of crime.
Nsii said she can envision a future in which she opens a restaurant and uses half of her income to help her victims. That’s the dream, at least.
“If I could ever get money,” she said, “I could go back there and say sorry for what I did to people there.”
She’s also thinking about marriage, something she said happens when “you grow up mentally.” But if she can’t find employment through the training program, Nsii said she also could see rejoining the rebels.
“People told us to come here and study and learn how to work. The training is good. We have learned a lot of things, and it may be useful for me someday,” she said. “If things don’t turn out well, maybe I will think about returning to the bandit life.”
Nsii liked robbing people. It was the easiest way to get food, clothes and sometimes cash. She didn’t care whom she hurt.
She joined a rebel militia at 16 and took part in robberies that left more than a dozen people dead.
“Every time you stole money, that was your joy,” she said. “We were living like bandits and thieving and doing many bad things.”
With no jobs and continual fighting around her village of Kashebere, Nsii saw little opportunity beyond enlisting in her local militia, the Gid mai mai.
She dropped out of school after the fifth grade because her parents couldn’t afford her school fees.
“We joined the militia because there was a war in our village, and we saw there was no other way,” she said.
The rebels lived in a primitive camp and slept on the ground. “If you stole a blanket or a piece of fabric, you could cover yourself with it,” she said.
Several times, her commander caught her not handing in all the money she stole. Punishment was harsh.
“They would lay you on the ground, tie up your hands and feet and start beating you everywhere,” she said. “There was no mercy.”
One of the militia’s main activities was robbing people on market day. Nsii and her comrades would lie in wait along the roadside and accost people going by. They fired their guns to intimidate their victims, sometimes hitting and killing them. Sometimes, her victims were acquaintances.
“When you are in the military, you don’t care if someone dies,” she said. “Some of them I knew, and I would just pretend I didn’t see anything.”
Rival militia bands would stake out the same markets, and Nsii’s unit would have to defend its turf. Shootouts were common.
“Almost every time there was market day, we would be fighting,” she said. “It was like business. It was a job.”
Some of Nsii’s victims challenged her and urged her to stop stealing. Gradually, she realized that what she was doing was wrong.
“They would tell us, ‘You are doing very bad things for people, and you should leave it and do something else,’ ” she said. “That’s how I slowly became transformed and came to accept that message.”
Fleeing from two rebel groups
For James Black, it was kill or be killed. The choice still torments him today.
James, 20, does not have much in the way of possessions. After more than two years as a child soldier, he has the top bunk in a spartan dorm room. He keeps a few changes of clothes in a duffel bag next to his extra pair of shoes.
But he has a sense of style. Even in the tropical heat, he wears a checked gray-and-black scarf loosely tied around his neck and a beige newsboy cap. He says he adopted the last name Black because of his ink-dark skin.
Friendly and upbeat, he recently began training as a mechanic at the Group for the Education and Training of the Victims of Nyiragongo, or ETN, a vocational program for child war victims in the war-torn city of Goma.
“In my dreams, sometimes I see people shooting people,” he said. “Sometimes, I see myself walking over dead bodies. And after dreaming about it, I feel very scared.”
James said he has one way to forget the past – drinking.
In 2009, James was taken captive, along with his family’s goats, by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, one of the most notorious rebel groups in eastern Congo. He was 15. At first, he had the hazardous job of ferrying ammunition to fighters during combat. Later, he was given a gun and ordered to fight.
After one battle, a captured enemy soldier was brought before the rebels of his militia, which numbered about 150. The men worked themselves into a frenzy and demanded the prisoner’s execution. The captive tried to speak, but the rebels silenced him. The commander ordered James to kill him.
James, then 16, knew he couldn’t refuse or he’d be shot himself. It was the only time he knowingly killed someone, he said.
“I shot two bullets into the side of his head,” he said.
James figured it was only a matter of time before he died if he remained with the militia. But escaping also was risky. Deserters who were caught were executed.
He began scouting the area. One night, he was on guard duty with two friends, ages 13 and 16. They had been plotting to flee. This was their chance, James said.
At 4 a.m., they took their guns and ran. They knew they wouldn’t be missed until the camp’s daily 6 a.m. meeting. By midmorning, they reached the camp of a rival militia.
“There were soldiers all around,” James recounted. “When they were about to shoot us, we put up our arms.”
The trio told the rebels that they had been ill-treated by the FDLR and wanted to join them. The 100-strong force welcomed them, he said.
Their treatment was better, but his friends did not fare well in battle. The 16-year-old was killed; the 13-year-old lost a leg. James knew he had to flee again.
One day, when he and another boy were given $20 and sent to a village to buy cooking oil, they slipped into the jungle.
They walked for most of the next two days, hoping to turn themselves in to MONUSCO, the United Nations stabilization mission in Congo. James had heard on the radio that the mission welcomed children who wanted to escape from any armed group. He had taken down a phone number. Two hours from the U.N. base, he called ahead using a cellphone to say they were coming.
He handed in his L4 light machine gun, the weapon the FDLR first issued him.
He spent two weeks in a demobilization program run by the U.N. and two months in another program run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
After his release, James tried to make a living selling beer in his hometown of Kanyabayonga. But he gave up after everything he had was stolen.
He’s now living in Goma, a beleaguered city on the shore of Lake Kivu that was devastated by a volcanic eruption in 2002 and occupied by the M23 rebel army in 2012. He is hoping now for a new start through his course at ETN.
“I believe that my training will help me,” he said. “I keep thinking about how to get money or a job so I can work and not go back to the place where there was so much violence.”
No longer afraid to die
Namegabe Baguma lost two years of his childhood to the Congo wars.
He was 12 when rebels from a local militia came to his house looking for recruits. He ran outside, but the soldiers were waiting. One of them clubbed him in the head with a stick. The blow left a curved 2-inch scar above his ear.
He was one of 14 boys taken that night in 2003.
“We went to the jungle,” he said, “and we never came back.”
Ostensibly, the rebel group was formed to protect the local population in Congo’s Walungu region from government troops and the FDLR.
Namegabe and the other kidnapped boys were ordered to carry ammunition boxes, fetch water, cook and scout enemy positions.
Soon after, as the new recruits walked through the jungle carrying ammunition boxes weighing more than 50 pounds, a soldier handed one boy his gun and ordered him to carry that, too. It was too much for the boy.
“He was tired,” Namegabe recalled. “He said he wanted to take a rest. And the commander said, ‘OK, you can take a rest forever.’ ”
With that, the commander killed him with a shot to the chest.
“No one ever said he was tired after that,” Namegabe said.
At first, he and the other captives were beaten frequently and confined to the camp, where they slept on the jungle floor. They were forced to loot from villagers and beaten when they refused. He grew numb to the violence around him.
“I was not afraid to die because I saw death so near me,” he said.
When he first arrived at the camp, six girls were being held captive. One was forced to be a commander’s wife; the others were raped by many men.
Days later, four more girls arrived. One was his 14-year-old sister, Tantine. She was kept under guard, and he could not to talk to her. She was taken to another camp and died soon after, he said.
When he was on a scouting mission, government soldiers captured him, beat him and locked him up. Despite his young age, the army did not hand him over to civilian authorities for demobilization.
About three weeks later, his militia attacked the base where he was held. He ran for the jungle but was captured again by his militia.
After Namegabe had been with the rebels for two years, two strangers came to the camp and met with his commander. They were part of a delegation visiting armed groups in Congo seeking the release of children.
The commander announced that children in the camp would have the chance to leave. All 21 chose to go.
The delegation came back a week later and took them to a rehabilitation center in Bukavu, where he stayed for a month.
From there, he went to Let Africa Live, where he was trained as a carpenter. Now 22, he manages a carpentry workshop established by the nonprofit.
“For me, life will be better now that I have been trained,” he said. “I am working. I have a job.”
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.
The nonprofit Eastern Congo Initiative provided logistical support for this project. It also provides funding for Let Africa Live and ETN.