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.
Here in Bukavu, the transit center opened five years ago in an unmarked building, tucked behind a wall off a busy street. Since then, 1,365 youths have passed through its doors, some staying a few weeks, others a few months. The youngest to date was a 7-year-old boy whose job was to guard battle charms for a rebel group called Mai-Mai. Each child reacts differently to the trauma once at the center, counselors say. Some act aggressively, especially toward other youths, while others withdraw. Some eat ravenously, yet others develop signs of anorexia. At night, fear and insecurity stalk them in various guises: bad dreams, insomnia, bedwetting.
The center provides counseling, basic education, health care and recreation, and it links youths to vocational programs or schools, depending on their wishes. It serves as neutral ground where children and family members can rebuild bonds. In rare cases where relatives cannot be found or do not want a child back, foster care is arranged.
From the start, attempts are made to ease a young ex-soldier's guilt.
"We try to show them it wasn't their fault," said Noe Mushengezi, who runs the center for a Congolese nongovernmental organization with support from UNICEF. "Some find themselves very guilty for what they did. The social workers tell them they weren't responsible."
Faustin arrived at the center Feb. 10 and sat for an interview one recent Saturday. His name and Aimee's have been changed because UNICEF says even using an actual first name could endanger a child's safety. The group also discourages questions about specific wartime experiences to avoid reopening emotional wounds.
Standing barely 5 feet tall, he wore jeans shorts and a blue sweat shirt with "Sitka, Alaska" on the chest. He is soft-featured with sad, rheumy eyes and speaks in a high-pitched, oddly monotone voice. A UNICEF official said his story and Aimee's fit a familiar pattern in Congo.
"They told us, if some of us tried to run away, we will be shot," Faustin said of that day in 2002 when the five men came. "So we did not move. Some parents saw us. They could not do anything. If you see a soldier with a gun, how can you not cry or be afraid? We were crying and very frightened."
Marched out of their North Kivu village, he and 13 other boys walked three miles before being loaded into a truck and taken to a training center. There the boys had to sleep on the ground in a cow shed, with no blankets.
Training consisted of running, calisthenics and a type of mock combat apparently designed to toughen up the boys. Three of the 14 boys did not survive training, Faustin said, either because of diarrhea -- only dirty drinking water was available -- or the violent fighting exercises.
After several months, the boys scattered with different units, all under the command of Laurent Nkunda, who was then a rebel commander. In 2004 he was made a general in Congo's army but remained independent, and until recently he had resisted joining his troops with the army's.
"They said we should fight for the country," Faustin recalled.
At the time, in 2002, Nkunda was a senior officer with the Rally for Congolese Democracy, a rebel group backed by Rwanda. In 1997, Rwanda had helped Laurent Kabila unseat the dictator Mobutu Sese Seku, who had ruled Zaire (as he renamed Congo) since 1965. But in 1998, after Kabila turned on Rwanda, that country's leaders backed rebel groups as a way to control the mineral-rich eastern Congo.
Faustin could not make sense of the shifting alliances. All he knew was "we were only involved with that fighting because they were telling us to fight. But we did not know why."
Soon enough he was fighting at a place called Pinga. To make it even more confusing to a young boy, the enemy was made up of Hutu rebels who had fled to Congo after the Hutu-led 1994 genocide in Rwanda and who now opposed the Tutsi-led regime that had pushed Hutus from power in Rwanda.
"The first time I went, I was afraid," he said of the battlefront. "After a while you have no choice and you become used to the war. You are there every day."
Conditions were bleak. "Most of the time I thought about running. We were spending all night not sleeping, being forced to take boxes of ammunition on the way to fighting. But there was no possibility of escape."
UNICEF does not allow reporters to ask children at the center directly about combat to avoid worsening their trauma. But his answers to indirect questions offered hints about his experience. On the battles he fought at, he said, "Pinga, Kanyabayonga, Rwindi, Nyabondo -- there are so many." Asked if he saw deaths on his side or the enemy's, he replied, "Both sides. Even some of my friends died, and I was forced to bury them."
As recently as late last year, he took part in fighting in Sake just outside Goma. When U.N. peacekeepers turned back Nkunda's troops, Faustin said, he took advantage of the chaos to reach a peacekeeping unit. That set in motion the events that led him out of the army to this transit center, home to 41 boys and 4 girls the day of the interview.
Now he looks forward to seeing his parents and sisters in the next few weeks. As for the counseling, he does not find it very helpful to talk about his experiences: "I do all I can to forget."
Despite his obvious emotional trauma, he seems to grasp that he still has his whole life ahead of him. He thinks about getting married, having a family and living a pleasantly uneventful life as a merchant selling salt and oil.
No school for him, though. "I cannot go back to school because my classmates are already far in their studies," he said. "I will feel small when they tell me I am nothing." Becoming a trader will offer a defense: "When they tell me about their school, I will tell them about my money."
Aimee, too, figures she is done with school. After all, she is a 17-year-old who had barely reached third grade when she felt compelled to join the rebel militia. Her goal is to learn sewing so she can earn a living. While she expects to visit relatives in her village, she would like to find her own place to live in Bukavu.
She regretted joining the militia right away. "As soon as you get inside, things are awful and you always think about escaping and running away. I wanted to leave in a good way. I didn't want to run the risk of being a deserter."
She would not get that chance for seven years, when child protection agencies found her at a military camp. At 14, she was chosen by a commander for the mostly male ranks of combatants. Maybe it was because of her sturdy stature; she does not know.