By Melanie Gouby in The Hague, Evariste Mahamba in Rutshuru and Esperance Nzigire in Goma (AR No 242, 12-Jan-10)
Despite the International Criminal Court, ICC, indictment of Thomas Lubanga for the use of children in his militia, the recruitment of child soldiers continues in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.
Evidence that recruitment is going on comes especially from North Kivu province where a number of armed militias operate, including groups from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR.
"The recruitment carries on, especially in the territories where the [government's] authority is not well established yet," said Pascal Badibangua, the director of a reintegration centre, which helps child soldiers adapt to life outside the military.
"I have just returned from a mission [to the North Kivu towns of] Rutshuru, Masisi and Goma, where I had the opportunity to see that armed groups are still recruiting child soldiers, despite it being illegal."
Some of these areas maintain a parallel administration structure, where former rebel groups share authority with the government-appointed administrators in an ad-hoc arrangement.
Lubanga, whose trial resumed on January 7, is the former president of the Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC. He faces charges of recruiting, conscripting and using child soldiers to fight in the inter-ethnic conflict in the Ituri region of the DRC during 2002 and 2003.
During the Second Congo War, which lasted from 1998 until 2003, thousands of child soldiers were recruited.
A United Nations-backed reintegration programme led to some 30,000 children being demobilised by mid-2007, according to a report from the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which was published in 2008.
The report says that, at the time, more than 7,000 child soldiers remained in armed groups and the Congolese national army.
The actual number could be higher than that, since child soldiers were again recruited during the 2007-2009 war between the National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP, a former rebel group, and the army.
It was hoped that the pioneering nature of the charges against Lubanga, whose trial was the first to begin at the ICC, would set a precedent and an example for other rebel leaders in the DRC.
But the deterrent effect seems to be only partial, according to experts.
"I cannot say that the Lubanga trial, to date, has been a catalyst in the prevention of the recruitment of child soldiers," said Bukeni Tete Waruzi, an expert on child soldiers for Witness, a non-governmental organisation.
"At least we know that the ICC has the capacity to punish people who commit this crime. But we cannot see the actual impact very well, since children are still being integrated into armed groups."
The ICC, however, maintains that its work is having a real impact, which will become more noticeable over time.
"[The impact] can only increase with the progress of the procedures at the ICC," said Pascal Turlan from the office of the prosecutor at the ICC. "We have already seen encouraging signs, in particular from military leaders who have recently joined the demobilisation process."
The ICC has taken some steps towards raising its profile in the DRC, and making local communities more aware of the role that international justice can play in fighting impunity in the region.
Screenings of the Lubanga trial have been organised in Ituri province. The court's outreach unit also periodically organises events in the DRC, where members of the public are given the opportunity to raise any questions or concerns.
Despite these efforts, a culture of impunity still pervades the eastern provinces of the DRC, with many armed groups keen to hold on to their weapons.
The lack of a comprehensive programme to fight the phenomenon prevents any real progress on ending the recruitment of child soldiers. Even when demobilised, they often return to armed groups after a few years.
In Rutshuru, about 70 kilometres from the provincial capital Goma, the head of a support group for former child soldiers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that former child soldiers often find it too hard to reintegrate into society, and remain vulnerable to militias on the lookout for new recruits.
"The children are manipulated [by militia leaders] and told that they must protect their tribe," he said. "They are also [harassed] by the police and the military, who tear up their certificates of reintegration. When the children feel insecure, they go back to the bush."
Very little protection or support is given to former child soldiers. Orphans are often rejected by their community because they killed some of its members or because they behave aggressively. Many who return are addicted to drugs or are infected with HIV.
"The success of reintegration depends on the degree to which the experience traumatised the child, but it will also depend on the economic and social conditions of the community," Waruzi said. "The impact of such an experience on children is so great that it is almost impossible to bring them back to where they were before."
Ruro Minbre, a former child soldier with the FDLR, told IWPR of the suffering endured by the children in these groups.
"[Militia groups] took children by force," he said. "When children resisted, the soldiers knocked a small hole in their head or in the neck and they died. So we did not have a choice."