Conflict is a normal part of life. Violence is not. This story is of 15-year-old Benedict*. Benedict was captured by a local militia group and forced to become a child soldier. But he knew this was wrong. One day, Benedict found the courage to escape. Now he is back home, earning a living and helping to put his younger sister through school.
This is Benedict’s story
“I used to live a happy life. I lived with my parents and was a big brother to my little brothers and sisters.
I went to school. I was in the sixth year, I had friends and I became the dean of my class. My job was to record the names of the people not working in class, pick up the chalk from the classroom floor and organise a team to clean the room after class.
One day I forgot to record the names of people being disruptive. I was telling my friends about a movie I had seen the night before.
My teacher did not punish me but during the class, he asked me to do an exercise on the blackboard. I failed and he told the whole room to boo me. I was angry and felt humiliated.
When I got home when my dad wanted me to go to the field to extract oil from our plants. I forgot. I had arranged to play football with my friends. In the evening I was seriously punished by my father.
In the midst of this shock, I went to spend the night in my tent.
Outside, I was stopped by bandits holding guns. They intimidated me. I had no choice but to follow them into the bush. I was terrified. They took me to join a militia group.
I was trained to handle the gun, to smoke cigarettes of all kinds and to become a combatant ready to die for our captain.
Thankfully, I made friends with two other children who were almost 15, the same age as me.
Fear, violence, and escape
Life became more and more difficult. To eat we had to rob villages or trap people on the roads. I remember being forced to go and intimidate a father. He gave me a lot of money that I had to bring back to our commander.
I felt more and more annoyed by these acts and wanted to stop doing them.
One day I was sent with a friend of mine to go and steal the hemp from our commander in a field. With my friend, we decided to escape and stop living a life in the militia. So instead of stealing the hemp, we ran away.
We were so afraid of being caught by the other soldiers. But we did it. We walked for two days and two nights, hunting to survive.
One morning, a mother found us sleeping in her field, exhausted, hungry and covered in dirt. She screamed and tried to make us move. But we begged her. She gave us clothes and helped us get a bicycle so we could go to the local market in my home village.
At the crossroads
My friend, the one I escaped with, lived in another village. We had to leave each other and go in different directions. I was very emotional. I couldn’t stop crying.
Walking down the road to my house, my mother was the first to see me. She ran towards me. Her eyes were filled with tears and she hugged me so strongly. She was crying, laughing and shouting all at once.
Learning to get my life back
A few days after my return, I learned about a group of people who supported children and young people that had been in armed groups. My mother introduced me to them and I learned about their projects.
I took part in their hairdressing training course at their training centre. I learned how to cut hair, to look after customers, to keep my equipment clean and in good condition. Once I completed the training, I received a starter kit, so I could keep my own business going.
I became a good hairdresser, and now I’m know by many in my village. This allows me to earn money and even to pay for school for my two little sisters.
Because of this my life has completely changed. I am proud to have become an important person in my family, and my village. I dream of a better life.”
-Benedict, 15, DR Congo.
No child should grow up with a gun in their hand
Every day, children in DR Congo are forced into joining militia groups. Others join, just to survive. Faced with no other options, a regular supply of food, money and shelter that the militia provides can seem like the best option for survival.
We believe that no child should have to join a militia group. That is why we work with local organisations, like Centre Resolution Conflits in DR Congo, to ensure children who have experienced a life of violence are supported to resettle into the communities, learn a skill or return to school. Their future should be one of hope, not despair, or further violence.
Children that do not get support too often end up back in the bush, with a gun in their hands.
Working with local people, we are dedicated to stopping this from happening.
*Names changed and pictures representative to protect identities and young futures.
At the heart of all of Peace Direct’s work lies the belief that local people should play a leading role in development and peacebuilding programmes. Peace Direct is currently leading on the Stopping As Success collaborative learning project which is looking at aid exits and transitions in support of locally-led development. Farzana Ahmed, Peace Direct’s Senior Researcher who is managing the project, reports on conversations she had with aid actors in the Philippines last month. Read more »
In light of the recent uptick in violence throughout the occupied territories; Peace Direct’s Scarlett Kassimatis and Oscar Lester examine the violent narrative surrounding the Great March of Return, which yesterday claimed the lives of 59 Palestinian civilians. Read more »