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The UN Security Council should respond to escalating violations against children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, including the recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence, said Human Rights Watch in a letter sent on December 10, 2008, to Security Council members. The Security Council's working group on children and armed conflict is expected to meet this week to consider action on this issue.
At least 175 children have been forcibly recruited into armed service since heavy fighting resumed in August between the Congolese army (FARDC) and the rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). There are reports that the number may be much higher. Scores of girls have been raped by parties to the conflict. Human Rights Watch observed some of these abuses in a visit last week.
"We wish Security Council members could have been with our researchers," said Jo Becker, children's rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. "The sight of drugged children carrying AK-47s might convince them that they should take stronger action to end the recruitment and rape of children and hold the guilty parties accountable."
Human Rights Watch researchers visited Nyamilima and Ishasha in North Kivu province, where they saw at least 30 children guarding barricades and patrolling the streets with weapons they could barely carry. Some were as young as 12, and four were girls. They were operating in areas now controlled by Mai Mai militias and the Rwandan armed group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
In some areas of Rutshuru and Masisi territories in North Kivu, Nkunda's rebels and other armed groups have gone door-to-door to force young boys and adults, some as young as 14, into their service. In other areas the group has recruited boys as young as 12 near displaced persons' camps. Some have been sent into combat without military training.
Pro-government Mai Mai groups recruited dozens of children for military service in late October, and the Congolese army has also recruited children to transport and distribute weapons.
Worldwide, 14 parties to armed conflict have been identified since 2002 by the UN secretary-general for consistent and repeated violations of international laws that prohibit the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Four of these "persistent violators" are currently recruiting children in the DRC - the Congolese army (FARDC), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), pro-government Mai Mai groups, and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
"Tragically, many of the children recently taken are ‘re-recruits,' who have already gone through demobilization programs," said Becker. "These programs are too brief, and the children urgently need more support and protection from being recruited again once they return to their families."
Human Rights Watch has also documented rapes of girls and women by Congolese army soldiers and by combatants of the CNDP, FDLR and Mai Mai militias. Dozens of women and girls from Nyamilima and Ishasha have been raped in recent weeks by Mai Mai combatants, including girls as young as 9 years old, attacked while working in the fields or sleeping in their houses at night. Some witnesses credit FDLR combatants with trying to restrain Mai Mai abuses, but in many areas both groups have collaborated in attacks.
Nkunda's soldiers raped at least 16 women and girls in late October and November following their takeover of Rutshuru and Kiwanja. Congolese army soldiers fleeing an advance by the group raped more than a dozen women and girls as they fled Goma on October 29.
Tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped since the war began in 1998, and a recent report from the secretary-general found that between June 2007 and June 2008, the UN recorded 5,517 cases of sexual violence against children in Ituri and North and South Kivu - 31 percent of all sexual violence victims.
Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to urgently send a "bridging" force to eastern Congo to help UN peacekeepers stop further attacks on civilians, including children. Human Rights Watch wrote (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/12/09/european-union-deploy-bringing-force-north-kivu-eastern-drc ) to EU heads of state on December 9, asking them to deploy such a force quickly in eastern Congo following an earlier request from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the EU.
Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to:
Statements by children
(All names below have been changed to protect the children's privacy.)
Anthony was one of an estimated 50 children and dozens of adults forcibly recruited in mid-September by rival forces, CNDP and PARECO, just outside the displaced persons' camp in Ngungu (Masisi territory). His family had fled to Ngungu days earlier, after the two groups fought in their home village, Numbi:
"Five CNDP soldiers stopped me on the road in the middle of the day. They sent me with a large group of other men and boys - some as young as 12, others as old as 40 - to Murambi, where they said we would transport boxes of ammunition for the rebel soldiers. They beat us badly so we couldn't resist. When we got to Murambi, they didn't order us to transport boxes, but instead gave us military uniforms and taught us how to use weapons. Then, after three days, they put us all in an underground prison. We stayed there for four days, and new recruits joined us every day. On the fourth day, they called us out of the prison and took us to Karuba. That night, I managed to escape with two other recruits, and we ran all the way back to Ngungu. The others who remained behind were sent to Kitchanga for military training."
When Anthony and the others arrived in Ngungu, they sought refuge at the MONUC base. Like many fighters who choose to disarm or who escape forced recruitment, they were handed over to Congolese authorities, who sent them to the military intelligence prison in Goma (known as the T2) as a transit point on their way to demobilization camps. Detainees are often held at T2 for weeks or months without charge and are subjected to cruel and degrading treatment; some are tortured. After five days without eating, Anthony managed to escape and sought refuge at a MONUC base in Goma.
"I want to go back to our home in Numbi," Anthony said. "But I'm scared. If the CNDP soldiers find me there, they will kill me."
Marie is a 16-year-old girl who was raped by a CNDP soldier in a farm outside Rutshuru on October 29, just after the group took control of the town:
"The day the CNDP arrived in Rutshuru, they pillaged my neighborhood and shot and killed two boys, so I decided to flee to Goma. I ran through the farms on the edge of Rutshuru and met two Tutsi soldiers with guns and spears. They stopped me in the farm. I was alone. One of the soldiers spoke Kinyarwanda, and the other spoke Swahili. They said, ‘We're going to kill you.' Then they put a knife on my arm. I said, ‘No, please pardon me.' Then they said, ‘The only way we can pardon you is if we rape you.' They cut my clothes off with the knife. One of the soldiers raped me from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. There was blood everywhere. Then when the second soldier wanted to start, there were lots of gunshots nearby and they left, saying that if I fled they would kill me. After that, I managed to escape and made it to Kibati [a large displacement camp outside Goma]. I'm still in a lot of pain, but I don't have any medicine and there's no one here to treat me."
Liliane lives in a displaced persons camp in Rutshuru. She was raped when she went back to her village to look for something to eat:
"One time, when I tried to go back to my village, the FDLR stopped me and raped me. They took me on the side of the road, near the village Buhuga. There were eight FDLR combatants. I was with seven other girls. All of us were raped. The other girls were from my village, but they don't live in this camp. They took us at 2 p.m. and let us go the next day at 4 p.m. We spent the night with them and then they let us go. One soldier raped me; there was one soldier for each girl. They abused us badly. They used their weapons to threaten us, but they didn't use them against us. I was 17 years old when this happened. The other girls were 16, 17, and 18 years old. I studied until the sixth primary level, but I can't study now that I'm displaced. I just want the FDLR and the CNDP to leave so I can return home and continue my life."