Girl soldiers face rejection

2004-04-13 20:25

Bunia - Girls who became child soldiers in the ethnic conflict in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) face rejection when they come home, a UN official warns.

"The boys won't have too many problems, but the girls, who are no longer virgins, who even have children, are not marriageable," Christine Peduto, a UN expert on child protection here, adding: "And their parents won't get a dowry. Their families won't want them."

Nor will the fighters who got them pregnant. "Very few have managed to form relationships," Peduto said.

About 6 000 former child soldiers are awaiting UN help to rejoin civilian life in the troubled Ituri region, where two rival tribes, the Hemas and the Lendus, continued to fight each other even after wider national peace pacts were signed for the DRC in 2002.

Some 4 700 UN soldiers are deployed in several towns in the area, where the fighting has drawn in soldiers from a UN peacekeeping mission and where a Kenyan military observer was shot dead in February.

Some village communities must bear part of the blame for the children's fate. Children as young as 10 have been "donated" to the militia groups to act as guards, porters and sometimes fighters, according to the United Nations.

The children now have to be separated from the adults in order to break the chain of command, and then be reintegrated into society.

Held since December in regroupment centres, the former child soldiers and about 9 000 adult militiamen have received no aid while they wait for a promised UN-supervised reintegration procedure to begin.

"They are beginning to get restless, and of course survive by extortion activities in nearby communities," an official of the UN mission in the DRC (Monuc) said.

Some are still at large, surviving in the bush.

A locally elected "interim co-ordinator" said the number of former fighters awaiting disarmament would likely rise to some 50 000, though Monuc disputes the figure.

Colonel Laurent Banal, an UN official in DRC said "the military situation is frozen on the national level, there is no integrated army yet."

This means former militiamen who wish to build a future within the military face an uncertain future and that those fed up with fighting are still waiting to be reintegrated into society.

The next stage will be to set up so-called transit sites for former militia members where each individual's future path can be decided in detail, he said. The apparent inertia has exacerbated the deep mistrust between the Hemas and the Lendus.

Reintegration has to take place in several stages. The first, which involves building awareness within the armed groups and communities, has already begun, Banal said.