Photo: Cornelia Walther/UNICEF
Ghesmit, 17, a demobilized child soldier who plans to become a mechanic
"Children are the first to suffer from the burden of conflict; they are caught up in violence as victims of sexual assaults; they lose their families and homes as a consequence of constant migration and they are involved in combat as perpetrators of the conflict," Cornelia Walther, UNICEF's chief of communication in the DRC, said.
Walther said 101 children aged between 11 and 17 years were currently in the Centre of Transit and Orientation (CTO) in Bukavu, South Kivu's provincial capital, following their demobilization from armed forces or groups.
At least 33,000 children have been demobilized across the country with UNICEF's assistance since 2004, according to Alessandra Dentice, UNICEF's chief of child protection in the DRC.
CTO is managed by the Congolese association, Bureau des Volontaires pour l'Enfance et la Sante (BVES), which has helped to demobilize more than 2,500 children since 2002.
Who does what
While UNICEF funds the programme and CTO oversees the demobilization process, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) undertakes family tracing and provides medical support; a network of 34 foster families hosts youth close to their homes in remote areas of the province; community volunteers regularly monitor the reintegration process; and, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) provides food for the children at CTO.
According to the UN, an estimated five million people in the DRC have been killed by war or disease since 1998.
Irregular birth registration across the vast country is one of the major challenges in demobilizing children. A 2010 UNICEF survey indicates that fewer than one in three Congolese children has a birth certificate.
Murhabazi Namegabe, director of BVES in Bukavu, said recently: "Administratively, these children do not exist. How do you prove to a commander that his soldier is a minor, if even the child itself does not know his age?"
Many children come from areas where the conflict continues, Namegabe said, adding that such children returning home faced the likelihood of being enrolled in armed groups again. "Every day when a child can be saved is a successful day," he said.
"There are children who do not want to return home because they are ashamed of what they have done; and finally there are families who refuse to take their children back - because they are afraid of what they have become," Namegabe added.
The situation for girls associated with armed groups is especially dire, Namegabe said, as they suffer from trauma, most of them having been raped and sometimes made pregnant.
All demobilized girls are taken to Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a medical centre which treats survivors of sexual violence.
Julia*, 17, told the UNICEF team: "I was born in Rwanda, but I never knew my parents. When I was 16 years old a commander of the national army took me by force. When I got pregnant he threw me away. At a support centre for refugees I was raped a second time. I am grateful to be here now with my baby. If possible I would like to start a small shop of my own."
At CTO, the children and youth have formal classes, peer-to-peer group discussions and career counselling on their options after the centre.
"The situation that brought them into an armed group has not changed; it's important that they have a clear project for their life in this context," Namegabe said. "We want them to build dreams, realistically."
Rohanne Rosine, CTO's director for the protection of girls, said: "The poverty of families is a big problem. Before they take back their daughters they request food or money, because they have too many starving mouths at home."