DRC: The boy soldiers and girl brides of war-torn North Kivu

In Democratic Republic of Congo, about six million children are affected by conflict, many of them in North Kivu in the country's east. Now, this same province is the epicentre of a new Ebola outbreak that threatens to further increase the chaos.


In war-torn North Kivu, boys as young as 14 describe being forced to fight on the battlefield under a spell of "Juju", or black magic, so they wouldn't be afraid of bullets. Girls describe being abducted by armed groups and forced into marriage with their captors.


A Save the Children analysis of more than 10 years of United Nations data showed a dramatic increase in atrocities against children in the DRC. Last year saw the highest level of verified child casualties on record, and the highest level of recruitment of child soldiers for nearly a decade.


"It's children like these who are paying the price for this brutal, forgotten conflict. They have been robbed of their childhoods. And without urgent medical and psychological help, they could lose the chance of building a future," said Save the Children's Country Director in DR Congo, Heather Kerr. 


"We're on the ground giving as many children as we can the tools they need to rebuild their lives. But there are thousands more who are on their own. With the right support, we could reach them.


"These children have seen things that no child should ever have to see. We can't change their past, but with the right support we can help rebuild their lives"


*The names of the children have been changed.


Former child soldier Nsii walks in the hills of North Kivu, DRC, after fleeing an armed group. When conflict broke out, Nsii was recruited by friends to join the local armed group, lured by the promise of a good salary and rewards. During an initiation ceremony, the group's commander cut Nsii's skin and smeared a 'juju' potion on his body. This, he was told, would make him invincible during the fighting. Nsii is currently being rehabilitated back into the community with the help of local NGO CAJED. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


Alice,16, was gang-raped on her way home from school and then forced to marry one of her attackers.Until last November, Alice was a hard-working student, with dreams of becoming a doctor, like many of her relatives. Then, as she was walking home from a study session one evening, she was abducted and gang-raped by five men, who had been waiting for her on the road. She fell pregnant as a result of the attack, and is now expecting her first child. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN



Sarah, 16, overlooks a camp for communities displaced by conflict in North Kivu, DRC. Sarah fell pregnant following a rape and now struggles to provide for her baby.Sarah was 15 when she was raped on her way back home from a visit to the hospital, in a vicious attack that left her pregnant. Her assailant, who then abandoned her, is now in jail. But for Sarah, his imprisonment gives little closure. She considers her life as destroyed. She wants to go back to school but currently struggles to afford food or provide for her baby's basic needs. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


 Kabera,16, was a schoolboy when he began working in a gold mine near his home. One day, on his way out of the mine, he was intercepted by a group of militiamen who threatened to kill him if he didn't join them. He was trained on how to use a gun, kill and rob people. He describes how the fighters would perform 'juju spells' on child soldiers, making them believe they were invincible during the bloody battles that they were forced to take part in. He was tattooed and his every move controlled. 

Kabera has now left the militia. Upon demobilizing, he saw how people in the community feared him because he was a child soldier. He now wants to return to school and is currently being rehabilitated back into the community. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


Former child soldier Rukara, 15, remembers the bloodshed he witnessed during brutal battles in North Kivu. Together with his young comrades, Rukara was routinely drugged to remove inhibitions about the deadly attacks they were instructed to take part in. He describes how the older fighters would also often accuse him of wrongdoing, and torture him with punishments when he refused to confess. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN



Ainkamiye,15, was abducted and forced to work unpaid as a house servant for the commander of an armed group in North Kivu. She tried to escape but the militia imprisoned her and watched over her so she couldn't leave, taunting her with sexual advances. Ainkamiye was forced to cook and fetch water for the group's commander. The commander said he wanted to marry her. Then one day he sexually assaulted her – and she knew she had to escape. When he sent her to buy some oil the next day, she saw her chance and began to run – trembling and stumbling as she crossed the bush. 

Ainkamiye managed to get away but the experience that she went through still haunts her. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


Uwase, 17, sits at home in North Kivu, DRC. Uwase was lured into early marriage with the promise of a dowry but shortly after the wedding her husband began beating and starving her.As a child, Uwase lived with her mother and they eked out a meagre living selling firewood and cultivating her neighbour's land. She was 15 when she accepted the hand of an older man in the hope of a better life, food and comforts. Despite his promise of a dowry, it never materialized. What’s more, soon after the marriage, her husband turned violent – beating her on a daily basis. She continued to live in poverty, with barely anything to eat or drink. After five months she could bear it no longer and escaped to return home to her mother. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


Nzitonda, 14, fled the armed group that had recruited him after seeing his friends killed in battle. Nzitonda was lured into an armed group with the promise of food and money. He had been struggling to get by, was hungry and had dropped out of school. Now, he is living back with his family and tends to sheep. He's hoping the money he can make selling them might be able to pay for his school fees. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


 A choir sings during Sunday service at camp for communities displaced by conflict. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


Esther waits with her children outside a Save the Children health clinic in a camp for communities displaced by conflict. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


Camp for communities displaced by conflict. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


 Three survivors of sexual assault walk through a camp for people displaced by the conflict in North Kivu, eastern DR Congo. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


Alphonsine and her baby wait outside a Save the Children health clinic in a camp for communities displaced by conflict. HUGH KINSELLA CUNNINGHAM/SAVE THE CHILDREN


© 2018 Al Jazeera Media Network

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