How the lives of former child and adolescent soldiers are transformed at RET Germany’s CTO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has suffered from an almost permanent state of conflict for more than two decades. From the 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed 800,000 lives and caused a flood of refugees, to the catastrophic wars that followed – most recent of which was the Second Congo War – this series of conflicts have a death toll of between 2,7 and 5,4 million, and wreaked destruction on a massive scale. The state of crisis is so pervasive that it is almost normalized, making it impossible to see the deep-rooted reasons of political violence.
Youth in DRC, similar to many crises around the world, stand out as the most affected of social groups. Despite an agreement between the government and the United Nations to demobilize adolescents under 18, the recruitment of adolescent and child soldiers remains wide-spread especially in the Kivu’s region.
RET Germany has had a presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 2012, conducting comprehensive Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs in its Centre for Transit and Orientation (CTO) and preventing the future recruitment of child and adolescent soldiers by armed groups.
The DDR is conducted in collaboration with local partners, ensuring a channel of dialogue is kept open with the militia. This sensitizes these groups to dire need to release child and adolescent soldiers, and is coordinated with MONUSCO (the largest United Nations peacekeeping force ever deployed) and the Unité d’Exécution du Programme National de Désarmement, Démobilisation et Réinsertion (UEPN-DDR) to influence a more sustainable response.
Demobilization is the process of disarming child and adolescent soldiers and lead to their release from armed groups and ultimately to the RET Germany CTOs where they are rehabilitated through psychosocial support, healthcare, guidance and vocational programs.
Each participants’ transformation at the CTOs is very different. At the end of their stay at the CTOs, adolescents decide on the path they want to take when they return to their communities. They can choose to either reintegrate into the educational system or to practice a vocation. Education entails receiving catch-up classes and reintegrating into the system. Trade opens the doors to adolescents receiving training on livelihood opportunities such as tailoring, baking or hairdressing as well as entrepreneurial training to equip them with the essential skills to run a successful business.
The reintegration component helps support the demobilized adolescents among their original communities. Whatever course they choose, RET Germany provides support through its relationships with schools and cooperatives and through the awareness-raising activities undertaken at the the community level.
Awareness: The Key to Sustainability
At each phase, awareness is the key to a new life. In the case of adolescent ex-combatants, it emerges first in the form of the awakening to the reality of their circumstances and the realization of the path they took. This helps them leave behind their previous lives in the bush.
These turning points may come at the moment they realize that even though they bore arms for one reason or another, they are still young people full of hopes, dreams and potential.
Patrick’s life was changed when he was approached by a few agents in the bushes whom convinced him that being a soldier is not his only solution. Following a negotiation with his chief, he accepted the help of ARDACO/RET teams who visited the camp. He deserted the armed group and head to the RET Germany CTO in Goma.
“There have been activities at the CTO which I first thought were a joke – like soccer games or theatre – but they have taught and transformed me”Patrick, ex-combatant
The breadth of tools RET uses, including participative games, discussion groups and support sessions, indicate its holistic approach. Together these different tools build resilience and prepare ex-combatants for the reintegration process.
“Slowly I reintegrated into the community and old enemies become my best friends.”Patrick, ex-combatant
Patrick’s acknowledgement of his old ‘enemies’ becoming his best friends indicates, in all its nakedness, the pointlessness of the conflict and reveals how drastically an individual’s perspective can change via awareness-raising.
Those who complete their stay at the CTO emerge eager to become RET focal points themselves. They step forward to inform their peers in the bush about the consequences of being a part of the armed groups. Families and communities are also providing support to help prevent future recruitment. They are informed on the best practices to help ex-combatants who return.
The path Esengo chose is one of the most inspiring and empowering that demonstrates the diversity that awareness-raising can take as well as the multitude of engagements ex-combatants can enjoy once they leave the CTO.
Esengo committed himself to spreading the message of peace, and founded COTHEF PAIX (Compagnie Théatrale Freres de la Paix), a participatory theatre that performs pieces about the prevention of the conflicts. Esengo, in his words, is a “comedian artist-provider” now. He is keen on raising the community’s awareness via theatre performances and spreading the message of peace in the region.
Opening into a New Life
The empowerment tools that make reintegration possible should be tailored to adequately respond to the needs and strengths of each individual.
Reintegration is not a process that follows the same steps and produces the same results for everyone.
The adolescents, once they have completed their stay at the CTO, are all presented with the choice to either continue their education or learn a trade/vocation. At this crossroads, they create ‘Life Plans’ that are of paramount importance for the ex-combatants.
What participants intend to achieve requires a process and what they already have; a well-developed skill, a lucrative trade, a vocation that’s mastered, can serve as a key that opens the ‘ideal’ – a springboard for better professions. Livestock husbandry, hair dressing, tailoring, farming, and opening a small business can all provide that ‘springboard’ for certificates or better vocations.
The trades and vocations that participants master may serve as a springboard for better professions. The professions laid out in the Life Plans may not constitute ‘final’ destinations. Participants need to capitalize on their skills and talents to look to the future. Life Plans, in that sense, symbolize the commitments they have made.
Many of the adolescents who proceeded with education this year have already benefitted from the catch-up classes offered at the CTO and earned diplomas in their respective fields. The Life Plans mark their aspirations and provide a route map they themselves develop to provide a pathway to their goals.
Elia’s Life Plan emphasized his desire to become a tailor. He practiced tailoring until he had saved enough to buy two goats, each of which gave birth. His vocation is instrumental in feeding his family and allowed him to continue his studies until he obtained his diploma in Social Techniques from the Institute of Neema. He now teaches at a small school to help his fellow citizens for almost no pay.
“You see, the profession I chose at the CTO has created another (profession), this time (in the domain of) education”.Elia, ex-combatant
Kwabo also became an unpaid teacher after his stay at the CTO. He chose the path of education and kept on until he obtained his diploma. Kwabo’s dream is to continue his studies and he believes having a small business will allow him to prepare for this dream.
Ambitions and desires to occupy public office and be of service to their peers and the community is common among ex-combatants.
RET Germany puts its deep understanding of the steps required to ensure the success of the CTO process. Progress is seldom possible without follow-up. Expert on education in emergencies and community stabilization, RET Germany remains adamant that practicing a rigorous system of follow-up and tracking the progress of ex-combatants during and after their CTO orientation helps them achieve the benchmarks on the Life Plan they developed for themselves.
Lives can and do change, and change requires faith, commitment, optimism and resilience. For such resilience to be cultivated, every ex-combatant at the CTO is motivated to tap into their reserves of power and their true capacity.
Elia, Patrick, Kwabo, Esengo and many others all left the bush and embarked on new lives. Now, it is up to them to navigate this next chapter with the skills, awareness, self-knowledge and the insights they have cultivated at the RET Germany CTO, to make up for the time they have lost.
The stories of CTO participants stand witness to their achievements and the key role RET awareness continues to play in their lives.
RET Germany e.V. would like to thank the Federal Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany for their endless support in saving the lives of adolescents and children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.