- - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo | About four months ago, at about midnight, 16-year-old Wetemwami crept out of the military camp that had been his home for three years.

He walked through the jungle for six hours before he found help. Like the other boys in his brigade of the Mai Mai militia, he was told that he would be hunted down and killed if he ran away.

“I didn’t take anything with me,” he said. “Not food, not clothes. I took only my gun and myself.”

Wetemwami’s last name and those of other children in this report have been withheld to protect them from reprisals.

Wetemwami was 13 when he joined the militia, partially to escape his scolding parents. Soldiers told him life with the Mai Mai - a loosely connected collection of local militias in eastern Congo - was lavish, with plenty of food and money.

Wetemwami volunteered to fight in a war that officially ended in 2003. Other children are taken into militias by force. The United Nations says that in the past seven years, 31,000 children in Congo have been demobilized. Many of them went back to their villages, traumatized, uneducated and isolated from their communities.

Countless children

The U.N. estimates that the number of children serving in Congolese militias, armed groups and the national army is about 3,500, but some observers say the number is much higher. The children are increasingly difficult to find, and many are girls.

Aid workers say militia leaders know that it is illegal to recruit children and that officers will lie or present false identification cards when asked whether they have minors under their command. Child soldiers usually live deep in the bush, in isolated areas untouched by government or international organizations.

“The commanders are hiding the children,” said Pascal Badibanga Zagabe, director of the Tumaini Center, a vocational school in Goma that teaches former child soldiers skills such as carpentry, sewing and mechanics.

“They are taking them as hostages,” Mr. Zagabe added. “The government and the other authorities have no control over these militias.”

Mr. Zagabe said about a dozen boys and girls are in his care full time, while 150 attend classes during the day. He said that the massive numbers of children who have been demobilized in recent years have strained aid organizations and that his school has had to turn away as many students as it takes in.

“There are so many needs,” he said, “but the response is very limited.”

Problems back home

Some children were forced to commit crimes in their villages before being taken into the militias, further isolating them by making them enemies to their own neighbors.

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