Children pressed into Congo's latest battles
BUNIA, Congo (AP) - Dwarfed by his assault rifle, Chipe burst into the shop, startling two women old enough to be his mother.
The 10-year-old, one of thousands of tribal fighters who have battled for control of this troubled town in northeastern Congo, ordered the women to stop looting the shop.
To make his point, he hit the women with the barrel of his Kalashnikov rifle.
"Get out and don't let me see you here again,'' shouted Chipe, who only has one name.
The terrified women scurried away.
In most parts of deeply traditional rural Africa, it is women who control the lives of children, feeding them, educating them and telling them what to do.
In the chaos of Congo's civil war, that equation has often been reversed by an equalizer more powerful than age - the gun.
International aid workers say about 30 percent of those fighting in the civil war in this vast Central African country are children under 18.
In Bunia, where tribal battles in recent weeks have left at least 500 dead and prompted the United Nations to send in an international peacekeeping force, it's estimated as many as half the fighters are children.
Such statistics often provoke anger from the outside world. Johannes Wedenig, an official with the U.N. Children's Fund, said the use of child soldiers violated international law but predicted the practice would continue until leaders who recruit children are held accountable.
"As long as the ones committing the crime operate with impunity, they will continue to send these children to war,'' he said.
Still, militia commanders and some of the young fighters themselves say the use of children in battle is the expected result of a war that has created legions of orphans.
"I became a soldier two years ago after watching Lendus kill my parents and five siblings,'' said 14-year old Patric Baraka, referring to the tribe that is a traditional foe of his Hema people.
When the Lendu came, Baraka escaped death by hiding on the roof of his family's mud-brick house.
Left with nothing, he walked 13 kilometers (8 miles) to the nearest Hema militia training camp.
Thomas Lubanga, who leads the Union of Congolese Patriots, a militia drawn from the Hema tribe, said many of the children fighting in his ranks had stories similar to Baraka's.
With no one to turn to, they look to the militias for meals and the respect one gets when wielding a gun. Revenge is also a motivation.
Other tribal commanders say fighting is a natural role for boys.
"Our children are born during war and they just grab arms and go into combat,'' Col. Mathieu Ngudjolo, who leads fighters from the rival Lendu tribe.
Children are preferred because they can be easily controlled, are less demanding than adult fighters and do not sense danger as acutely as their elders, he said.
Programs had been instituted to help children soldiers into civilian life, but Wedenig said these had to be shut down because of the recent fighting.
UNICEF also has been working with other aid groups to reopen schools in hopes that classes will keep potential child recruits away from the militias, he said.
In Congo, children are a "massive pool'' of possible recruits - they make up an estimated 55 percent of the population, said Wedenig.
Families and community leaders often pressure them into fighting.
"Every village has a chief, and every village has its gang of warriors for protection,'' said Col. Daniel Vollot, commander of U.N. troops in Bunia.
Despite living a soldier's life, boys sometimes cannot help but be boys. At a makeshift movie hall in Bunia they pay the equivalent of about 10 U.S. cents to watch videos like "Dragon Fighter,'' a karate flick in English, a language few understand.
Throughout the movies, the kids whoop and cheer. Recruitment of child soldiers continues in Ituri, despite the recent arrival of a U.N.-mandated international force to stem violence in Bunia.
The French-led force - distinct from the U.N. force of 750 Uruguayan troops in the town - is authorized to shoot-to-kill to defend civilians, secure Bunia's airport and protect aid workers.
On a few occasions, French soldiers have exchanged gunfire with tribal fighters, and one French officer, who insisted on anonymity, said commanders had expressed worry at the prospect that children might be among the fighters.
But Col. Gerard Dubois, spokesman for the French, said the soldiers had to do their duty when attacked by a hostile force. "We have a mission,'' he said.
The war in Congo broke out in 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda backed rebels seeking to oust then-President Laurent Kabila, accusing him of aiding insurgents threatening regional security.
Kabila remained in power with the help of foreign troops who were later withdrawn in a series of peace deals.
Throughout the war, the Hema and the Lendu - traditional rivals for decades - were armed by the various governments and used as proxy forces in battles for control of the region's vast natural resources, like gold and lumber.
Ugandan troops withdrew in May, leaving Hema and Lendu tribal factions to battle each other for control of the region.
More than 25,000 fighters are believed to have taken part in the recent fighting. There are no estimates of casualties, but tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes.
Baraka, the Hema boy, was among those fighting.
He says he can't remember all the battles he has been in or how many people he has killed. "They are just too many'' he said, a thin smile crossing his face.
On June 7, in the latest round of fighting, Baraka almost became on one of the war's estimated 3.3 million victims.
He said Lendu fighters - including some children - captured and beat him, and one of them prepared to slit his throat.
He was saved when Hema reinforcements - some of them boys his age - arrived and drove off the Lendu fighters. - AP