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Others are welcomed back by their communities, but with no skills, they cannot work, and many are too old to go to regular schools.

Those who can get vocational training have a chance at a better future, but in Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, work is scarce. Some children rejoin militias simply because they are hungry.

Jennifer Melton, a U.N. child-protection specialist in Goma, said re-integration is difficult for children and their families, even in the best circumstances. Boys return home to find they are viewed as potentially violent. Girls, often the victims of repeated sexual assaults while with the militia, are viewed as “damaged goods.”

“There’s an assumption by family members, community members and also by humanitarians that any girl that has been associated with an armed group has also been sexually assaulted,” Ms. Melton said. “It just adds so much more stigma. It’s something we’re definitely concerned about.”

Many children, like Wetemwami, serve on the front lines, fighting for control of villages and looting the homes of the civilians. Others children serve as spies, scouts, porters, cooks and bodyguards for officers. Girls are also kept as sex slaves.

Congolese journalist Jack Kahorha said children are often used as bodyguards or foot soldiers because they are too young to be afraid.

“For them, it’s a joke,” Mr. Kahorha said.

The spark from Rwanda

The conflict in eastern Congo is generally traced back to the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, when about 1 million ethnic Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus were killed in 100 days. Despite the carnage, Hutu extremists lost the civil war in Rwanda and about 2 million Hutus fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then called Zaire.

Existing Hutu militias in Congo were fortified by the influx of Rwandan refugees and unprecedented foreign aid, and communities across the region began forming armed groups. Fighting escalated until six neighboring countries were drawn into what was dubbed “Africa’s first world war.”

Since the conflict began, more than 5 million people have been killed and about 2 million remain displaced by fighting that cooled to a simmer only after a 2003 peace agreement.

In 1999, the U.N. deployed its largest peacekeeping force in Congo on a mission that is set to expire in June. Locals say fighting, looting and mass rapes continue, often fueled by competition for the vast fortune in mineral wealth buried under the troubled region.

Wetemwami said that when he was a soldier, he was never afraid of battle. He had beer, marijuana and the Mai Mai “magic” protecting him. The magic is a combination of potions and powders believed to make bullets ricochet off a soldier’s body.

Wetemwami did not question the validity of the magic, but lifted his shirt to show four protruding lines - scars that prove a Mai Mai soldier can get hurt if he does not follow the “rules” associated with the magic.

In three years in the bush, about 20 of his friends died in battle, all because they didn’t follow the rules, he said. Wetemwami said he thinks he was injured because he stepped over the blood of a fallen soldier during battle. Others are said to have died because they ate cabbage, raped a woman or touched the plants surrounding the village during the battle.

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