BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo — UNICEF permitted interviews with the children in this story only on condition that their real names not be used since they remain at risk of being targeted by militant groups.
BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo -- The day his childhood ended, he was a 12-year-old boy playing cards with friends in his village. Then five gun-toting men appeared. As horrified parents looked on, the men marched the crying, barefoot boys single file into the world of child soldiering.
Hers ended when she was just 10. Marauding soldiers had killed her uncle and scores of others in her village; they were looting and, she says, "doing everything." Full of fear and with an empty belly, she reluctantly joined the militia, thinking it safer than trying to survive as a civilian.
Over many years -- four for him, seven for her -- the boy and the girl witnessed death and dying up close as they fought a war that pulled in six countries and caused 4 million deaths in this vast central African nation.
Both are now safe, if not quite sound, at a UNICEF-supported center here that helps children formerly associated with armed forces reunite with their families and rejoin society.
Both know that no one can help them reclaim their stolen youth.
"I suffered very much," said the boy, Faustin, now 16, who arrived in early February. "I saw so many dead men I have never seen before. Those are things I can't afford to remember."
The girl, 17-year-old Aimee, who followed Faustin by two weeks, said: "I've spent a part of my life for nothing. I still have time, if God blesses. I still have the opportunity to do some good things."
A key focus of UNICEF, meanwhile, is to assist the 29,000 children like Faustin and Aimee who have been demobilized across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as it is officially known. Kids as young as 7 were recruited. Not only are children easier to control physically than adults, experts say, but they tend to follow orders and to commit atrocities without fully pondering the consequences. At any age, they were traumatized whether toiling as porters, cooks or front-line soldiers.
Some recruits underwent cannibalistic rituals, according to the United Nations. In other cases, children were forced to kill their parents so they would have nowhere to run. Girls, who made up 30 percent to 40 percent of young recruits in some cases, were usually forced to be "war wives" or sex slaves, and many bore children or got HIV from rapists. Children were often given drugs to make them more pliable when it came time to kill, loot or rape.
It has been four years since the formal end of a war that devastated Congo from 1998 to 2003, fueled by ethnic tensions and the pursuit of the vast mineral wealth of this central African nation. But young combatants are still emerging from military units, and child advocates say at least 4,000 more remain stuck with forces. Some have recently donned the uniform of Congo's army as it absorbs rebel militias without properly weeding out those under 18.
Nor has child recruitment completely ended: In late January, 35 boys were press-ganged into forces linked to a dissident Congolese general named Laurent Nkunda.
In a grim echo of conflicts in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in the world, nearly every commander in Congo's long war recruited and exploited children, UNICEF says, and nearly every one of those officers has avoided prosecution for it. Several have landed promotions in the expanded national army, including one accused of raping a 14-year-old.
One of the exceptions is Thomas Lubanga, a former rebel leader who was indicted by the International Criminal Court and awaits trial in The Hague.
'Long way to go'
So far the lone commander to be convicted and jailed for child recruitment by Congolese authorities is Jean-Pierre Biyoyo. Last year he escaped from prison and remains at large. He has been seen working as a colonel in the army. This month, U.N. envoy Radhika Coomaraswamy demanded that authorities find and reimprison him by May.
"There is such a long way to go here," said Pernille Ironside, head of child protection for UNICEF in eastern Congo. Biyoyo's case sent "shock waves" through the army, she said, by showing that commanders could be held accountable. Now it raises anew the specter of impunity.
"The fact that he escaped and is out in the open and has some apparent support from the [Congolese army]," she said, "is putting those victims at risk of reprisal and deterring other victims from potentially testifying."
Ironside said Congo's military has committed itself to extracting under-18-year-olds, as required under the country's new constitution and international law, but actions on the ground do not reflect those lofty commitments.