A handful of young men in their 20s are busy on the side of the road here in Bukavu in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are wielding a welding machine that looks as though it barely survived the wars itself.
“We’re fixing this motorcycle,” says Daniel Baguma over the din of a saw.
Putting things back together seems an apt profession for people whose lives fell apart as children. Eastern Congo has endured two decades of conflict that began when Rwanda’s genocidal war spilled across its borders. It proved too much for the fragile Congolese state to handle, and the region descended into chaos.
Thousands of children were swept up by armed groups for use as forced labor or made to serve in the military. As many as 30,000 children were used as soldiers in 2003. That number has shrunk to an estimated 3,000 or so as violence has declined, some armed groups have demobilized and a patchwork of peace agreements have been signed.
For some child soldiers, those days are distant memories; for others, they remain open wounds.
“I was out in the countryside, taking care of some cattle, and they took me. That’s how it started,” says Baguma.
He was 12, and “they” were the Mai Mai — one of dozens of armed groups fighting in Congo in the early 2000s. The group still exists, even though many of the soldiers have since been integrated into the Congolese Armed Forces.
“I started carrying luggage for them. All of a sudden you don’t have a home anymore. You just go. You’re just walking through whatever town you find yourself in. You’re just … dispersed.”
Baguma remembers those days as he sits down to dinner with friends, many of them former child soldiers like himself. It’s a bit like a reunion of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys.
“I was smoking a lot of weed and taking a lot of drugs. These were the Mai Mai drugs; you inject them and people can’t shoot you,” he says of the drugs the Mai Mai believed imparted supernatural powers during battle. “I regret it. It messed with my mind.”
Pascal Birashirwa was even younger than Baguma when he was taken. He was just 10.
“My father was fetching water for the toilet,” when the soldiers appeared, he says. His father fled and told everyone in town that his son was dead. His family and neighbors went into mourning.
In the jungle, picked up by soldiers, Birashirwa roamed the countryside. “Sometimes they would give me food, sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes the commanders would eat and leave me with nothing, guarding the camp,” he recalls. “I couldn’t leave. It was all I knew.”
None of the young men like talking about what they did or saw done in the five, seven, sometimes eight years they spent with the armed groups.
“I never killed people, only enemies,” says Birashirwa. “And whatever happened out there stays out there.”
When their groups demobilized in 2010, the boys – now nearly young men – found their way back to town. Everyone thought they had died.
“They were so happy,” says Birashirwa. “So, so happy to see me.”
The neighborhood also came out to celebrate for Baguma when he returned. But the joy was short-lived.
“My family was disappointed,” says Birashirwa. His shame is typical. “They said I could’ve gone to school, but I came back smoking weed and cigarettes.”
“When we compare our lives with the lives of someone who stayed in town, stayed in school, did the usual route, they have had successful lives. We’re still figuring ours out,” says Baguma.
While many Congolese sympathize with child soldiers, they are often suspicious of them as well. It can make finding work difficult. Baguma spent a year essentially doing nothing, wondering if he should return to the forest.
Learning basic literacy skills and some kind of vocation has been critical to reintegrating young people whose childhoods were stolen by armed groups. But sometimes they’ve needed to learn things that were much more basic.
“Things like: You’re allowed to make eye contact with people. It’s OK to disagree with people when having a conversation. You are valuable as a person, and you have the right to determine your own future,” says Jocelyn Kelly, director of the Women in War Program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.
“These are the skills that are so incredibly human and basic, but often, especially for young girls who were in armed groups, [they] had no idea no idea were available to them,” she says.
The Harvard initiative helped do a study of what worked and what didn’t when integrating former child soldiers. A lot groups have tried a lot of different things.
“Cash payouts, a kit that has basic household goods, trying to engage people in small income generating activities,” she says.
Fly-by-night operations that gave a group of young, male child soldiers a goat and a pat on the back, and then left after a few months did not work, Kelly says. And former child soldiers whose psychological needs weren’t met, suffered. Some ended up institutionalized.
“I mean it’s kind of the foundation of everything you’re expected to do. If you don’t have that basic capacity to engage with people, overcome anxiety or symptoms of [post-traumatic stress disorder], you’re not going to be able to engage with a job in any way shape or form,” she says.
Child soldier survivors need sustained follow-up care – essentially a caseworker – and so do their parents, says Kelly. “I’ve not seen many programs at all deal with the effects on families,” she says.
Parents are anguished that they can no longer seem to communicate or connect with their children. It’s a typical problem for parents of teenagers, made exponentially more intense by a parent’s knowledge that just on the other side of their childrens’ eyes is an ungraspable reality of deprivation and trauma.
If they could just get through.
Both Birashirwa and Baguma were lucky enough to find a place at Laissez Afrique Vivre, a school for former child soldiers. They learned welding.
Baguma’s new career seems to be working out. “Business is good,” he says. “I know a lot of people who respect my work, I have work, I make money, I feed my kids.” He’s built a house, and he’s paying for his children to go to school.
Birashirwa is having a little more trouble. “I could’ve gone to school. I could’ve had a life. Welding is giving me money day to day, but I can’t plan on anything bigger than that,” he says.
Back at the welding shop, former child soldiers are smoothing off some scarred metal on a door they repaired. They’re trying to smooth away their own scars too.