Under a spell: The tormented world of Congo’s child soldiers

 

The potion was powerful stuff: the grown-up rebels who had given it to the boys, smearing it on their beanpole bodies every day for a week, had promised it would make them invincible.

Still, the first time he went into battle Jean-Paul wanted to be sure. Stripping off his clothes, he fought the enemy naked.

The magic seemed to work.

Not only has he lived to see his 13th birthday, but he has emerged more or less unscathed from repeated engagements with the Congolese army over a period of nearly two years.

“I knew that as long as I remained naked, I could be sure that the charms worked,” he told the Telegraph last week.

His friend Phillipe, a year older and wiser, also holds with the magic. And why not? Unlike Jean-Paul who went into battle with a mere hunting rifle, he was been given far more powerful weapons: three eggs and a calabash gourd.

“When I threw the eggs they turned into bombs and the enemy was killed by the fire,” he said. “I killed many people that way.”

Alive today, there was, and remains, no reason for him to question it all.

Phillipe and Jean-Paul live in Kasai, a vast region in the south-west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that reaches up from the border with Angola deep into the country’s heart.

Historically dominated by the Luba people, its diamond wealth has been plundered for decades by successive governments in the capital Kinshasa, denying it even the most basic development.

Despite its poverty, Kasai was, until 2016, one of the most peaceful regions of the country, its people clinging to one cherished freedom: the right to select their own chiefs and live according to local custom.

But in August 2016, Joseph Kabila, Congo’s then president, who was widely reported to be in hoc to mining interests, moved to take that away in a bid to exert greater control over the region.

The power grab misfired, sparking a vicious civil war as a Luba sub-clan took up arms after the Kabila regime prevented a local leader assuming the Kamuina Nsapu chiefdom and then killed him.

Jean-Paul and Phillipe, although only children, were swept up in the inchoate rage that rippled through the region.

“I saw my friends join and fight the army,” Jean-Paul said. “We wanted to liberate the country.”

When the opportunity came to join the local militia, they volunteered willingly, taking the responsibility of righting the wrongs done to this community onto their young shoulders.

“Respect the rules, and you’ll be fine,” Jean-Paul recalled his father telling him before he left with the militia. “The magic will protect you.”

Commanders wasted no time in wielding the sorcery to their advantage. On the battlefield they deployed girls as young as seven in matching red frocks to the front line.

Swishing their magic dresses to scoop up the army’s bullets, they protected not only the boys standing behind them with their hunting rifles, eggs and pieces of wood that turned into AK-47s but also the men, armed with proper weapons, who brought up the rear.

The child soldiers – known as the “Baby Police”– were killed in their thousands, but total numbers were not evident to individuals. And anyway, with magic there is always an explanation.

Jean-Paul said he believed the children who died met their fate because they had not followed the rules. Perhaps they had eaten meat, or had sex, or had worn underwear while fighting, he explained.

It was always going to be a struggle against the odds.

Unlike the rebellions that claimed millions of lives in eastern Congo between 1998 and 2003, the Kasai militia, known as the Kamuina Nsapu, received neither financial nor military support from neighbouring states.

Instead they had to rely on old rifles hidden by sympathetic local villagers, weapons captured in battle and, in the tradition of many Congolese rebel groups, on magic and child soldiers.

Going from village to village, they set up baptism sites, known as tshiota, to indoctrinate child recruits.

At these, children were given bitter potions made from the powder of bark from three trees, often mixed with human blood and ground-up bones. The remainder, made into a paste, was brushed onto their bodies with the promise it would give them superhuman powers.

Sometimes, as in Jean-Paul’s case, they swallowed three live red ants before marching round a fire and chanting the words “In the name of the Kamuina Nsapu”, an incantation they would intone repeatedly in battle.

They may have been outgunned, but even the army’s elite Republican Guard seemed to fear the magic. Sometimes they did mow down the girls in their red dresses and the egg-throwing boys. But often they turned and fled.

The Kamuina Nsapu’s resistance proved an inspiration.

New rebel groups were formed, often by chiefs who had suffered similar indignities. The army and politicians in Kinshasa responded by creating militias of their own, drawn from non-Luba ethnic groups that could use their own magic to take on the rebels.

As the war fragmented, taking on an increasingly ethnic tinge, the atrocities mounted, carried out by all sides. Suspected sympathisers were executed and villages destroyed. Reports of cannibalism abounded.

The army and its allied militias killed thousands of Kamuina Nsapu, more than half of them children, including 3,000 alone in a nine-month period from 2016 to 2017, according to figures collected by Congo’s Catholic church.

The rebels themselves were brutal, too. Phillipe said his “baby police” platoon were told to identify captured soldiers whose language marked them out as being easterners with ethnic ties to Rwanda, hated for its previous support of Congo’s government.

“If they spoke Kinyarwanda, we had to shoot them on the spot,” Phillipe said. “The other prisoners we took to the commanders.”

The fighting unleashed a humanitarian disaster in Kasai.

Some 1.4 million people fled their homes and today, 3.8 million people in the region need humanitarian assistance, including 2.3 million children.

The fighting disrupted farming, leaving many, particularly the very young, close to starvation. Nearly half of children under five in the region’s five provinces are now malnourished, according to according to the United Nations Childrens’ Fund, Unicef.

Hundreds of clinics and schools were also burnt down. Six in ten infants across the region are unvaccinated, and 80 per cent of the population is unable to access clean drinking water, making the risks of a health epidemic terrifyingly high.

The crisis has only worsened in recent months after neighbouring Angola began expelling Congolese nationals who had crossed the border looking for a better life. Some 750,000 people have been driven back into Congo, placing huge strain on Kasai’s already limited resources, says UNICEF.

The fighting in Kasai has abated in recent months, in part because the unpopular Mr Kabila, who had clung to power for two years beyond his constitutional term limit, finally yielded to regional pressure and stepped down in January.

It was widely hoped his departure would restore order in Kasai – but that still hangs in the balance.

Congo’s new president Felix Tshisekedi, is of Luba extraction and a member of one of Kasai’s most famous political families.

Some of the Kasai militias have stopped fighting, hoping the new president will at last give the region a fair deal.

But others have not and are suspicious about the nature of Mr Tshisekedi’s victory.

Many believe he has stuck a secret deal allowing his predecessor, whose party still dominates parliament, the ultimate say in governing the country.

In short, they suspect that Mr Tshisekedi may be no more than a puppet and question whether he has the power to address Kasai’s long festering grievances even if he was minded to.

Yet a failure to do so risks reigniting a conflict which is as much about wealth as it chiefdoms.

Kasai could have been rich. The mines around Mbuji-Mayi, the capital of Kasai-Oriental, produced more than half the world’s diamonds in 1963.

But transport infrastructure has collapsed. So rutted are the roads that travelling between Kasai’s towns by land is almost impossible. When it rains lorries become mired in the mud for days on end.

A restoration of stability depends on whether the new government can lift people out of poverty by creating jobs, says Father Jean-Collin Mpalanga, parish priest at the church of Saint Theophilus in Luambo, a town 140 miles south of Kananga.

“We are a society that has received no investment,” he says, sitting in the church’s colonial-era cloisters after reciting mass. “Investors will only come if there is electricity and roads, yet the region is deprived of both.

“In an area that has been abandoned for so long, people have high expectations of Tshisekedi. But while there is hope, there is also fear because he is essentially cohabiting with the old regime, which might block him.”

Phillipe and Jean-Paul, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, have escaped the militias for the moment but their futures are far from certain.

Phillipe, never as committed to the cause as his friend, says he slipped away from the Kamuina Nsapu in the fog of one particularly chaotic battle.

Jean-Paul lingered longer, but says he started to worry about the sheer number of children being killed. He and the other 14 boys in his platoon came to the conclusion that their commander was not following the rules of the order, inviting divine disfavour on them all. One night they fled.

Readjusting to normal life has not been easy.

Phillipe has twice moved in with family members in different villages, but both times he had to run away after being identified as an ex-fighter, the type of person many villagers did not want living in their midst.

Jean-Paul, after living with a priest for a while, returned to his father’s house. But when he got to the village he found it deserted. The army had raided it hunting for Kamuina Nsapu sympathisers.

On the floor of his home, he found his father lying on the floor, badly beaten by the soldiers. For a week he nursed the man who had encouraged him to go to war, but his injuries were too great and he died in his son’s arms.

Both boys are now in a children’s refuge in Kananga run by a missionary order from Belgium. Here, life is more tolerable; there are games and lessons and, above all, safety and love.

Yet the future is precarious for these traumatised children. Adjusting to real life is hard and outside the refuge, Kasai continues to simmer.

No real efforts have been made to negotiate with the region’s armed groups or to demobilise them. The government militias still have both weapons and child soldiers in their ranks. And there are reports that rebel outfits are again recruiting boys and girls in response.

The Congolese staff at the centre do what they can to help former child soldiers make the transition to normality. But many are beyond help, institutionalised by the brutality of the life they left behind.

As long as the militias exist, the lure will be too powerful for some to resist, even if both Phillipe and Jean-Paul swear they will never fight again.

“A lot of the children here are mentally and physically scarred and don’t know how to readjust to life,” said Ivo Van Volsem, the Belgian priest runs the centre.

“Even now, when kids leave here and go back to their villages, they drift back to the Kamuina Nsapu.”

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