Save the Children is preparing for a potential release of child soldiers currently forced to fight with Laurent Nkunda’s troops and other armed groups in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Although figures are very unclear, it is thought that between three and six thousand boys and girls, some aged as young as ten, are being held by warlords in DRC, including Nkunda, who was arrested by Rwandan authorities yesterday.
With Rwandan troops now operating in DRC and the eyes of the international community focused on the country, it is less likely that militia leaders will want to have child soldiers in their ranks for fear of prosecution. If Nkunda’s troops (the CNDP), and other rebel fighters, are integrated into the Congolese army, Save the Children believes it could result in a mass release of children – up to 1,500 – many of whom will be suffering long-term psychological damage.
Gilbert Hascoet, country director of Save the Children, said: “Children are subjected to terrible atrocities at the hands of all armed groups in DRC, and Nkunda’s men are no exception. Many children will have been forced to kill or be killed on the frontline, others will be being used as sex slaves, porters or spies.
“There is no way of predicting what will happen over the next couple of days, but Nkunda’s arrest is a real turning point and one we hope will lead to the escape or release of more child soldiers. We know there are at least 1,500 children currently in captivity with these fighting groups, children who desperately need to regain some sort of normality.
“Save the Children is putting plans in place for an emergency scale up in case any children escape or are released, to provide them with counselling and support, trace their families and ensure they are safely reintegrated into their communities.”
The humanitarian crisis in DRC is likely to intensify as Rwandan troops, supported by the Congolese army, prepare to attack Congo’s Hutu militia group, the FDLR. The attacks could be disastrous for families living with or near FDLR fighters, as they too are likely to be sucked into the fighting.
Mr Hascoet continued: “Any attacks by the Rwandan troops could make a major humanitarian crisis even worse. Around 850,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in north Kivu, eastern Congo, and we believe this impending fighting could add 150,000 more.
“It’s essential that MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force in DRC, do everything they can to protect civilians and prevent any further recruitment of children.”
For information or interviews in the UKcall Save the Children’s media unit on +44 207 012 6841 / +44 7831 650 409 (24-hour line) or email email@example.com