By James Stairs
Goma – Saddiqi Fundi stands in a central Goma garage surveying the damage to a large truck, its frame severely damaged from driving on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s rough roads.
Fundi, 21, is an apprentice welder at the Garage Buyora, operated by Puis-Casi Kasereka Lwanzo, a Congolese businessman who trains demobilized soldiers.
As a 14 year-old, Fundi was abducted from his town near Masisi, 50 kilometres west of Goma, and enlisted into the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), a rebel army backed by Rwanda.
He fought for three years before he was rescued by UN peacekeepers and sent to a reintegration programme.
After completing the programme, he returned to his village. But he was soon abducted again and sent back to the front lines.
Fundi managed to escape several months later and was taken in to the mechanics programme in 2004.
Despite various attempts at ending fighting in the DR Congo, which has dragged on despite the official end of war in 2003, children like Fundi are still being recruited and re-recruited into various armies fighting for control in the volatile North Kivu province.
As people fled their homes to avoid clashes that began to intensify in August, the DR Congo’s various armies, observers say, have capitalized on the chaos to recruit underage soldiers into their forces.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned earlier this month that recruitment levels were high.
Children are abducted to fight or serve as sex slaves to older soldiers. Others turn to the militias voluntarily for protection, food and shelter.
Amongst DR Congo’s massive refugee population, children are particularly vulnerable to abduction.
The country currently has over one million people displaced from their homes, 250,000 of them since fighting resumed in the summer.
In a recent United Nations report, a group of experts tasked with investigating the conflict accused all sides in the war of recruiting and deploying child soldiers.
The National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), the Congolese army and Pareco, a group of militia aligned with the government were all accused of using the chaos to recruit child soldiers.
‘Former child soldiers are vulnerable to re-recruitment as they are already trained combatants and constitute an appealing asset to armed groups,’ the group reported.
In the Northern Orientale province, which borders Uganda and Sudan, high levels of recruitment have been reported as Congolese, South Sudanese and Ugandan troops jointly battle notorious Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA),
In a recent interview with UN radio, Alan Doss, the head of the UN peacekeeping force in the country (MONUC), demanded the release of underage soldiers from the country’s armies.
‘The recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups is a war crime and a crime against humanity,’ he said. ‘This literally destroys the future of this country.’
Lwanzo, however, is doing his best to help these former child soldiers build a future.
The businessman started out in 1985 training homeless children. Non-governmental organizations working with child soldiers later took notice and asked if he would expand his programme to help former combatants.
The school is now in its seventh session and has trained over 350 demobilized soldiers from all of the armed groups involved in the Congolese war. His students have been as young as 14.
Amongst the 60 employees at his garage, which spans almost a full city block, are several former students. Other graduates return home to work or start their own businesses.
The mechanics at Garage Buyora are well-regarded, Lwanzo says.
Rifling through a folder, he pulls out a photo of his mechanics repairing a broken axle on a heavy white vehicle with black UN letters.
‘Even MONUC use our services,’ he laughs.
However Lwanzo is haunted by the possibility his former students may end up fighting once more.
‘When we train people and they return to their villages to work they often are noticed by their old commanders and re-enlisted right way,’ he says. ‘When we know someone has been drawn back into the army, we immediately raise the alarm.’
Fundi is always alert, knowing his military past is never far behind him.
‘If I go back to Masisi, I know I’ll be taken back to the army or killed,’ he says. ‘Many of my colleagues are dead. I never go far away from the garage.’