GOMA, Congo, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Snatched from their homes by armed men who force them to carry ammunition, fight and kill, beaten if they refuse, east Congo's child soldiers are teenage victims of an unforgiving war.
Child protection agencies report a surge in recruitment of under-18 soldiers by warring factions in Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern North Kivu province, where increased fighting since August has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Safe now in a transit camp run by the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, former teenage fighters tell of being kidnapped from their homes to swell the ranks of armed groups as porters, cooks, cleaners and even frontline troops.
To protect them from reprisals, the ex-child soldiers are given assumed names and are not allowed to say who recruited them, whether the rebel or militia groups or the government army which make up the warring parties in violence-torn east Congo.
"I was recruited last month and managed to escape only recently," said "Stewart", 16, speaking in the UNICEF camp, which was decorated with murals advocating children's rights.
He told his story on the World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
"I was at home when some troops passed by and asked me to be a porter. I was thinking that if I went with them they would let me go and I could go home but they wouldn't let me. When I arrived at the camp they told me I would be a soldier," he said.
Although he was given training in how to shoot, "Stewart" did not stay with the group long enough to go into combat.
"I mostly carried ammunition. I was always tired but if I told them I was tired, they would beat me with sticks," he said. "I saw many people kidnapped in schools and in markets, all over. If you tried to escape, they would kill you," he added.
George Graham, spokesman in Goma for Save the Children, said that even before the upsurge in violence in North Kivu, some 3,000 children were fighting in armed groups in Congo.
"Since then, there have been many reports of forced recruitment of children ... there's been a surge," he said.
"I SHOT SOMEBODY"
"Peter", also 16, who said his parents were killed by Congolese Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda, was kidnapped by "people with guns" while collecting firewood.
"I spent six months with them, mostly cooking and cleaning, but on one occasion I was forced to fight. I shot somebody and it made me very upset. They forced me to," he said. Discipline for the child soldiers was invariably enforced by savage beatings or harsh punishments.
"Peter" said he was punished for once refusing to go into combat. "They beat me across the arms with a pole 100 times".
On other occasions, for misdemeanors, he said he was strung up upside down from a tree, his legs bound. "I would hang there from early morning until late at night," he said.
"Peter", who said he had seen five other forcibly recruited fighters killed for trying to escape, eventually managed to slip away at night and find refuge at a U.N. peacekeepers' base.
"Joseph", 15, who spent some two weeks with an armed group who often bound and beat him, was not so lucky. He was captured by Congolese government troops and sent to jail, before being taken in by child protection agencies.
Human rights groups say recruiting child soldiers is a war crime being committed by some or all of the warring factions in Congo, along with killings of civilians and forcing refugees from their homes or from established camps.
Save the Children's Graham said there was concern that already demobilised child soldiers were being re-recruited to rejoin the enduring cycle of violence in east Congo, which UNICEF calls the "worst place in the world to be a child".
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Richard Balmforth)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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