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Congo's children: Recruited, raped and killed in conflict

Congo's children: Recruited, raped and killed in conflict
New York — A Congolese teenager appealed to the U.N. Security Council Wednesday to protect children in his country, where conflict between the military and armed groups in the country’s east is exacting an appalling toll on children. “I ask you all to take up the cause of defending children’s rights internationally and in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” the 16-year-old boy, whose identity was protected, told a meeting focusing on children and armed conflict through an interpreter. Last year, the United Nations verified almost 4,000 grave violations against children in the Central African nation, where armed groups have been vying for years with the military for control over the country’s vast natural resources. More than 1,800 children were recruited by armed groups last year, according to the annual U.N. report that verifies violations against children. Sixteen armed groups operating in the country were named and shamed for a range of offenses, from abducting and forcibly recruiting children, to maiming and killing them. The Congolese armed forces were listed for committing rape and other forms of sexual violence against children, but the U.N. noted they have taken formal steps aimed at preventing such abuses. More than 650 children were verified to have been killed or maimed last year, the majority by three armed groups — CODECO, the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, and M23. Thirty child casualties were attributed to the army and police. The teenager who addressed the Security Council spoke of how he was abducted, beaten and forcibly recruited by an armed group on his way to school one day with two friends. “We cried and trembled, begging them to let us go home to our families, but they wouldn’t listen,” he recounted. “That’s when they started whipping us and keeping us in the bush. We were heavily guarded, and they had orders to kill anyone who tried to flee. I had to leave school to serve this armed group by force.” His job was to steal food from farmers’ fields. “During the fighting, many [child recruits] were exposed to being killed by the enemy, and others were killed by their groups themselves, for fear they would divulge their secrets if caught by the military,” he said. After three years in the bush and losing hope of ever seeing his family again, one day he took his chance and escaped while out searching for food. Found by the army, he was taken into custody and briefly sent to a military prison. He went through demobilization rehabilitation and has now returned to school. But not all children are as fortunate. “Girls were also abducted,” he said. “Some became wives of the chiefs, while others were taken by other soldiers.” Spiraling sexual violence The United Nations report says sexual violence was perpetrated against 279 girls and two boys last year — including rape, gang rape, forced marriage and sexual slavery. “The use of sexual violence as a modus operandi of armed groups is spiraling,” Ted Chaiban, UNICEF deputy executive director, told the council. "During my recent visits to the DRC, I met with adolescent girls who had run away with their siblings when their villages were attacked, and who now headed their households,” he said. Chaiban said it is especially worrying that the conflict is intensifying at the same time the large U.N. peacekeeping mission is beginning to leave the country, at the government’s request. "There is a very real risk that the humanitarian crisis in the DRC could soon become a catastrophe,” he said. It is not just children who are experiencing horrific abuse. Women are also subjected to staggering rates of sexual violence. In Goma, capital of North Kivu province, instances of sexual violence in the first half of 2024 were double the amount recorded over the same time last year, from 7,500 reported cases to 15,000, said Francois Moreillon, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s head of delegation in DRC. “Anyone with a gun feels that he can do whatever he wants,” he told reporters. Moreillon recounted how a woman that the ICRC had treated after being raped told caregivers that she and other women were taking condoms with them into the forest when they went to collect firewood — a prime time for women to be attacked. She said they hoped to persuade their potential rapists to wear them so they could prevent sexually transmitted diseases and lessen the anger of their husbands, who often leave women after finding out they have been raped. The Congo has one of the largest internal displacement crises in the world, with more than 7 million people affected.

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