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Children on the Frontline

About 200 Children Fighting in Uprising in Eastern DRC

KINSHASA, Jul 2 2012 (IPS) - “I saw at least three or four little fighters accompanying each adult soldier,” said Jean Claver Rukomeza, a resident of Runyonyi, one of the strongholds of the M23 rebellion that has rocked the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since March.

“The adult fighters refuse to allow residents to approach or speak to these young fighters,” said Rukomeza, a former journalist with Mapendo, a private radio station, which broadcasts from Butembo in North Kivu, the DRC province that is the epicentre of the latest uprising.

He added that all the fighters speak Kinyarwanda – the language spoken in Rwanda and parts of the eastern DRC. His eyewitness account supports the serious charges made by a senior Congolese government spokesperson on national television on Jun. 24.

Speaking on national television on Saturday (Jun. 30), Lambert Mende, the Congolese Minister for Communications, denied rumours which say “DRC has armed and equipped members of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) and former FAR troops (Forces Armées Rwandais – elements of Rwanda’s former army) to attack the regime in Kigali”.

“Between March and April 2012, Rwanda recruited around 200 very young children which it trained and sent out as combat troops in M23,” said Mende. M23 is a group of military mutineers who have led an uprising in eastern DRC.

Mende’s remarks followed the publication, on Jun. 21, of a United Nations report on the situation in eastern DRC and the external support enjoyed by the new rebel movement, which stated that “between April and May 2012, M23 recruited numerous children to carry military equipment and to fight in its ranks”.

“(The M23 rebellion) was created by Bosco Ntaganda, a general in FARDC (the Congolese army), with support from Laurent Nkunda Batware, the former president of the CNDP (the National Congress for the Defence of the People) whose rebellion gripped the province since 2003 and other high level members of CNDP wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the French version of the report stated.

The report – based on corroborated eyewitness accounts from soldiers, active and deserting rebels, and Congolese army intelligence reports and intercepts – details the recruitment of children, as well as provision of ammunition, training, health care and the mobilisation for ex-combatants for M23 by neighbouring Rwanda.

In the report and an Annex published on Jun. 27, the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo names high-ranking individuals in the Rwandan army as well as Bosco Ntaganda, a general in FARDC (the Congolese army), and Laurent Nkunda Batware, the former president of the CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) whose earlier uprising has smouldered in the province since 2003.

The experts note that in convicting Thomas Lubanga Dyilo for the war crime of conscripting and enlisting children to fight in Ituri Province in 2002-2003, Ntaganda was named as a co-perpetrator. “The verdict triggered further calls for the arrest and transfer to the International Criminal Court of Gen. Ntaganda, who is charged with the same war crimes as Mr. Dyilo.”

In a Jun. 18 letter addressed to Li Baodong, the president of the U.N. Security Council, by Mukongo Ngay Zénon, chargé d’affaires for the DRC’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, which IPS has seen a copy of, the Congolese government “drew the attention of the Security Council to the support coming from Rwanda for M23 and to the existence of a recruitment chain for fighters in that country”.

The letter added: “Following an inquiry carried out by the government and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the conclusions allow us to state that many of the recruited combatants are returning Rwandese, amongst whom there are around 200 minors and very young people”.

Days earlier, the Congolese foreign affairs minister, Raymond Tshibanda N’Tungamulongo, wrote to Li asserting that M23 “in addition relies on unholy alliances” with the support of Rwanda. “Among the combatants captured by FARDC are members of the FDLR, many of whom were repatriated to Rwanda by MONUSCO.”

The FDLR is a Hutu rebellion which has fought against the Tutsi regime in Kigali since 1996 and which maintains rear bases in the eastern parts of neighbouring DRC.

But for Jonathan Kavugho, a former fighter with the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), the rebel group led by Laurent Désiré Kabila, which seized power in Kinshasa in May 1997, the presence of FDLR fighters in the ranks of M23 is not the principal concern.

“It’s the decision taken by the government in March 2012 to suspend military operations in the region which is causing problems, since it has allowed some FDLR units already sent back to Rwanda to slowly regain their former positions – abandoned by M23 and FARDC at the same time.”

Responding to the charges of Rwandan support for M23 during a Jun. 21 visit to the Congolese capital, Louise Mushikiwabo, the Rwandan Minister for Foreign Affairs, denied any involvement by her country, dismissing the suggestions from Kinshasa as “rumours”.

Speaking later at United Nations headquarters in New York on Jun. 25, she said, “Rwanda is neither closely nor remotely involved in the destabilisation of the DRC and the two countries have already exchanged ambassadors to show the whole world that it’s no longer possible to base a suspicion on this idea.”

The Security Council has made a resolution encouraging DRC to continue with its efforts to end the M23 rebellion, and condemned governments providing support for the rebels without citing any countries by name.


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