Aid agencies working in North Kivu are warning that the region is facing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis as militias from the rebel M23 group terrorise local communities with killings, rapes and lootings. The group has also stepped up efforts to grow its numbers by forcibly removing young men and boys to act as soldiers. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented the removal of at least 100 young men over the past four months, though actual numbers are thought to be higher.
One young man forcibly taken by M23 rebels along with fifteen others, some as young as 12 years old, told IRIN that he had been taken for training in Bunagana, which lies on the DR Congo-Ugandan border. Given a uniform and shown how to shoot a gun, the youngster fled during a battle between M23 rebels and national army soldiers. Now back at home, he said “we are existing but feeling like we are not, because if the rebels recruit you by force and send you to the front line you may die”.
Other youngsters have decided the risk of being taken is too high and have fled their homes. Of the nearly 60,000 people who have sought safety in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, many refugees are reported to be young people or children. They speak of regular patrols of M23 rebels and their commanders who come looking for new recruits in the villages and towns along eastern areas of North Kivu Province. One non-governmental organisation working in the region told IRIN that in one village a chief had refused to show the fighters in which houses they could find young men and so had been tied up while homes were searched and over 30 youngsters were removed.
The Head of the UN Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO) confirmed the recent increase in the number of child recruits taken because of the upsurge in violence in the east. He acknowledged the terrible consequences of such a situation, saying that the use of “children and youth in armed conflict will create generations trained in violence, tearing apart the fabric of Congolese society”. Though pressure is being brought to bear on national governments in the region, with the rebels able to roam over vast swathes of uncontrolled land, there seems little hope the situation will improve anytime soon.