By Kadir van Lohuizen and Sophie van Leeuwen in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo
The day his cows were stolen, Trésor had enough. He went to fight for the rebels. With a gun, everything is for sale.
Together with friends, Trésor (16) strolls through the mining village in the mountains of South Kivu, Congo. They wear gold chains around their necks and make selfies with their mobile phones. No telephone poles or wires to be seen.
“My father is polygamous”, Trésor says. “He sent away my mother. Then we moved to my mother’s sister. I took care of the cows in the green fields of Kivu.”
Then one day the rebels of Raïa Mutomboki came. They took the cows, the family’s only possession. “I decided to become a rebel”, says Trésor. With a gun he would be able to protect his family.
Trésor was 12 years old when he voluntarily joined the local militias, the Raïa Mutomboki or “angry citizens”. Beyond the green mountains, the boys have been fighting on the frontline.
They use names like “Espoir” (hope) and “Amani“ (peace). Born during a war that has been raging for twenty years. The angry citizens fight Rwandan rebels (FDLR) who moved their base to Eastern Congo after their expulsion following the Rwandan genocide (1994).
Fighting with the Raïa Mutomboki was hard, according to the boys. Every day, the kids had to go on patrol. They had to protect the rebels against their enemies. Trésor: “At every battle, we had to fight in the front line. We got little to eat and had nothing to say.”
The militias chased away the Rwandan rebels who occupied the mines in this area. But the war over minerals continued. Now Trésor had to fight against the corrupt Congolese army, the FARDC. It was traumatizing.
“I’ve seen children and adults die in the bush. Many others are now handicapped, both physically and mentally.”
Last year, Trésor decided to flee. Running away through the woods. By escaping he risked severe corporal punishment, sometimes the rebels will even kill those who try to leave. “I ran away in July, after four years of war. I’m happy I’m not a rebel anymore. I don’t want to go back, ever.”
The boys ask for food. In the local restaurant, a dark, wooden house along a dirt road, we find cooked rice. A laughing, round woman serves steaming plates to the table. Trésor and his friends attack the food hungrily.
One of them wants to be a hairdresser, another wants to be a fashion designer. Trésor doesn’t know yet what he wants to do next. Before we say goodbye, we embrace each other. One more selfie and the little rebels stroll through the village again, a grin on their faces.
According to the United Nations, more than 10,000 child soldiers have been freed in the past years in DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Every year about 1,800 new children are recruited.
In 2012, the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize. A part of the prize money was allocated to War Child in Eastern Congo via the EU Children of Peace initiative. This article was made possible with the cooperation of Warchild.