Eastern Congo: A Visit with Former Child Soldiers

Lane Hartill, CRS’ regional information officer in West and Central Africa, sent this dispatch from the city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

At first, Jean Pierre didn’t want to meet me. He thought I was going to make him go back to the military. And he’d had enough of that.

A rebel group in eastern Congo captured Jean Pierre when he was 15 years old. For three months, he slept in the forest, waiting out the fighting that tore through his once-tranquil village. When word spread that it was safe to return to the village, Jean Pierre ventured back. But he’d gotten bad info. The rebels were waiting.

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Lane Hartill, Regional Information Officer for West and Central Africa, sits with former child soldiers in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The young men participated in a CRS summer camp in which they learned about non violence and peace. Photo by Mechac Nkuzimana for CRS

So began nine years of military service (he was removed from the army during the disarmament and demobilization process because he had been captured as a child). Jean Pierre gently dipped into the details of his past. He’d seen things nobody should have to see. Some of it was grisly, and I didn’t press for more details. There was no point in making him rehash the ghastly things commanders forced him to do.

I sat with Jean Pierre in the shade of banana trees and we talked about life. The more he talked, the more people gathered. A few other former child soldiers also came forward. But they weren’t coming to listen to him; they were coming to look at me – a muzungu, a white person – sitting in their village.

The crowd started to swell, but Jean Pierre didn’t seem to mind. He is well loved in the village and was welcomed back with open arms after almost a decade absence. Most people had written him off as dead.

I couldn’t see Jean Pierre doing the evil that armed groups here are known to do: the burning of villages, the violence against women. He was gentle and thoughtful and quickly let down his guard. I loved his sense of humor.

As he talked, I thought to myself: If I lived around here, I’d want to be friends with Jean Pierre. He and I could go hiking in these emerald hills. I could go see his potato patch perched on the side of a mountain. In the evenings, we could go down to the shaggy soccer field below his house and he could show me how he used to score goals when he was a kid.

He had taken part in a CRS-sponsored summer camp. He said he’d learned about peace and non-violence. Another former child soldier told me he’d learned how to respect his parents. The camp taught them how to act around adults. They were also allowed to be kids again, playing soccer with other teens their age. The two-week camp had a deep impact on them. I could tell it was one of the few bright spots in their otherwise dark lives.

Before I left, Jean Pierre and I walked through his village. He told me farming, not fighting, is what interests him. He said all he wants to do is take care of his parents, buy some goats, and farm potatoes on the hilltop in the sun.

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