BUNIA, 12 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - The disarmament effort of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as MONUC, has brought almost 3,000 minors into the care of child-protection agencies working in the northeastern district of Ituri.
They are doing their best to reintegrate the so-called child soldiers into society, but many end up in trouble.
"In the militia we smoked dope and we shot. I did not mind that others killed people, I am sure they had good reasons to do that," a 15-year-old former soldier told IRIN in March, at a centre for reintegrating children in Bunia, Ituri's main town.
Many of the youngsters were forced to become porters, cooks, cleaners and spies, and "were often victims of daily psychological, verbal and physical violence", according to Massimo Nicoletti-Altimari, head of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Bunia.
Officially, these children are not former child soldiers but "children associated with armed groups". As such, they receive special treatment once they arrive at a disarmament site. They are separated from the adult militiamen and, after registration, quickly returned to their families. However, this is often difficult.
"Finding families of former child soldiers can prove almost impossible, with the lack of communication facilities and the current security problems in Ituri," Bienvenue Panda, UNICEF's protection officer in Bunia, told IRIN.
Many of these children's parents are no longer in their home villages, but in towns and camps for internally displaced persons, and cannot be easily traced.
The story of one child, 14-year-old Anna, is typical of many girls who were kidnapped by militias. She told IRIN how she ended up as a prostitute.
"I was taken by force, but then got used to staying with the soldiers," she said. "When I was 12, I had to cook food for them. When the foreign troops arrived I left them."
She said that because she could not go back to her family, she now survives as a prostitute.
"My family is far and I live with my grandmother who is poor. I survive together with other children in the centre of Bunia town," she said.
According to UNICEF, such girls were often raped whilst abducted by militias, exposing them to HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
By the end of March, only about 1,500 children of those who had registered with UNICEF had been returned to their parents - mainly those from villages near the registration sites.
The others were handed over to orientation and transit centres for children (CTOs), run by NGOs with the support of UNICEF. There they received shelter, food and schooling.
"In tracing families of children who came from faraway places we had only 10 percent success. Some of the minors [have] already [been] stuck in the CTOs [for] six months," Panda said.
In some cases, families do not even want their children back.
"Some children are no longer accepted because they are violent and maltreat their parents," Panda said. "Even their language is affected. The term 'I want to kill you' comes very easily - death became a banality for them."
Charles, 17, previously recruited by the predominantly Hema militia group Union des patriotes Congolais, is now living in a CTO run by Caritas, a Catholic aid agency, in Bunia.
"We did not kill for pleasure, but for revenge only," he told IRIN.
He added that it had been safer for him to stay with the militias than at his home village, which was attacked several times.
Unlike adult fighters, former child soldiers are not required to give up any guns in order to benefit from the reintegration programmes that are available to surrendering militias.
Each child receives a basic kit, which includes a shirt, trousers, shoes, a sleeping mat, a blanket and toiletries.
According to UNICEF, "the provision of civilian clothing is an important part of the reintegration process, as many children arrive at the disarmament sites wearing military uniforms." It also helps them to forget their past.
Another former child soldier, 12-year-old David, who lives in the Caritas CTO in Bunia, told IRIN: "The militias threatened to kill my parents when they refused to hand me over to them. My brothers were also forced to join the militias - one was killed. I hate the militias."
Reintegrating these abused children into normal life requires psychological care and lots of patience.
According to UNICEF, most children want to go home and back to school. However, there are also many examples of children who do not want to rejoin their families.
"One child we demobilised started crying, asking 'What will I do without my family? The army is my family.' He was with the Forces armees du peuple congolais militia for one year and, before that, in several other militias," Panda said.
A Caritas psychologist, Jean-Paul Dhelo, told IRIN that he was making sure the children were not abused again.
"Families and foster families have to sign a paper - that the children won't be sent back to the militias and that they respect the children's human rights," he said. "We follow-up what happens to them."
Despite efforts by humanitarian aid workers to reintegrate them, some children still end up in trouble.
"It is a fact that many girls who were sexually abused are finally ending up on the street again, working as prostitutes," Panda said.
SOME BOYS END UP AS CRIMINALS
Edward, 17, used to escort a local influential figure and fight with militias he said were backed by foreigners.
"I remember the war in Chai, Marabo and Peka which lasted three days. It was bloody, all my friends died and I killed many people," Edward said.
"After the arrival of the MONUC troops I left. I was hidden away for several months so that my bosses could not find me," he added.
Eventually, Edward found a foster family in Saio, a suburb of Bunia. Many are now afraid of him there.
"He joined armed bandits, usually goes out at midnight and comes back in the morning," his former best friend, Francis, told IRIN.
Edward's foster father, Papa Hadji, recalled a day when local youths from the neighbourhood beat up the boy because he had stolen something. "Suddenly militias showed up to free him," Hadji said.
Hadji sees Edward as "a real danger to the public". However, Edward said his actions were a matter of survival and would, once he made money, stop stealing and become a mechanic.
"In my new family everybody is busy looking for food. I need $30 to start a cigarette-selling business," he said.
[Editor's Note: All children's names in this article have been changed to protect their identities]