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Demobilizing Difficult for Child Soldiers

Children who were forced into the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia often found it difficult to return to civilian life in their home communities, a witness told the court on Friday.

“You must understand that such children killed, plundered…and raped girls…and old women,” explained the witness, who worked in a demobilization center for child soldiers in the Ituri region of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

“That is why many communities did not want to receive the children back,” he said. Still, the center did all it could to reunite former child soldiers with their families.

Since a child typically stayed at the center for 90 days, the witness said, social workers would use that time to convince families to accept the children they had lost.

Often, he said, the center assisted the transition by providing incentives. “We could provide, for example, some goats, or we could provide agriculture items,” the witness explained.

The demobilization center also provided education, psychological care and literacy classes to the former soldiers.

Residents at the center were encouraged to draw diagrams of their villages and homes so social workers could locate their families, the witness said.  The drawings became the most useful tool the center had to find a child’s family, he said.

Verifying the age of a former child soldier could be challenging, the witness said. If the child wasn’t registered anywhere, the UN Mission to the Congo (MONUC) would assist by cross-checking all the available information to produce an approximate age.

“Did physical appearance come into play?” asked prosecutor Nicole Samson.

“Physical appearance could be a factor, [but the child] may look 18, but not be 18 yet,” the witness responded.

If social workers could not determine a former soldier’s age, they would not take him or her at the center, he said.

The witness said that young girls had the most trouble demobilizing. “It was a lot more difficult for girls than boys,” he said.

“For boys, they have their [own] way of leaving [the UPC]. The girls were more closely monitored,” he said. “Some had been taken as [wives] of certain members of the military.”

The trial will resume on Tuesday, June 30.