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.
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.
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.
Poverty vs. war
When asked about his fallen friends, he spoke frankly as he described why they died. When asked about his enemies, he answered swiftly. In three years in the militia, he killed about 50 people, he said.
"I was very happy, because I killed enemies that came to attack us," he said.
Kikandi, 16, killed only one man in his year with another local militia. During battles, he usually hid in the bush and was later beaten by the other soldiers who considered him a coward. Kikandi said he preferred the beatings to the battles because he was afraid to fight. As a new recruit, he was not given magic to protect him.
Unlike Wetemwami, Kikandi did not join the militia by choice. About a year and a half ago, militiamen came to his village and demanded the local children. Parents who objected were beaten, and about 10 boys were taken far into the bush.
"They gave us guns and military uniforms, and we began fighting," he said.
Kikandi is now studying carpentry and living at the Tumaini Center with Wetemwami, who studies masonry. Both boys said they want to go home and get jobs.
Kikandi said the threat of being captured by the militiamen and forced back into bush is terrifying.
But for Wetemwami, living in extreme poverty is often worse than fighting. He said his white sleeveless T-shirt, blue track pants and orange plastic sandals are the only clothes he has. As bad as life was as a soldier, life as an ex-soldier could be worse, he said.
"I am dreaming about going back to the militia," he said. "At least there I had clothes."