At the Lake Muhazi Centre, an hour’s drive from the Rwandan capital, 30 adolescent boys have come together for a three-month course that offers counselling, education, recreational activities and vocational training. These are not your average young men – they used to be child soldiers in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Report by Katrin Piazza – Kigali, Rwanda 27 May 2011
Today, with help from the UNICEF-supported Commission for Demobilization, they are on the road to living a normal life with their long-lost families.
Life among soldiers
Silvain, one of the youths at the centre, has not enjoyed the comfort of a safe, loving family environment for many years. In the turmoil of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when he was a baby, his parents fled with him and his elder brother across the border to DR Congo.
After the situation had calmed down, his parents returned with his elder brother to see if all was well. Silvain was left behind in the care of an acquaintance. Neither his parents nor his brother ever returned, and Silvain still does not know where they are.
While in DR Congo, he lived with a foster mother and went to school. One day when he was 14, some men appeared at the school and told him and a friend – who had also been separated from his parents – that they knew their parents’ whereabouts. “Come with us and we will show you where they are,” the men said.
The next thing they knew, the two boys were part of an armed group. “My life among soldiers was very hard,” says Silvain. As part of the troop leader’s escort, he was in charge of ensuring that the boss’ wife had enough to eat.
“Yes, I had to use my weapon to kill people, particularly when villagers refused to hand over their food,” he says. “I could not bear the situation.”
Chance to escape
One day about three months ago, his command happened to march through an area that was near the Rwandan border. Silvain immediately saw his chance to escape.
“I remembered passing the area and hearing on the radio that the UN would help soldiers who wanted to come home. So I decided to tempt fate, got three of my mates together and fled,” he says.
Silvain and his friends were helped across the border and brought to this centre. Now, 10 boys are busily preparing to leave. It is ‘integration day’ – when parents and relatives arrive to collect their boys and take them home. Each of the boys has packed his belongings, including a ‘unification kit’ containing a woollen blanket, a malaria net, crockery, cooking utensils, a jerry can to carry water, and a bag of seeds.
“We don’t want families to feel the boys are a burden,” explains Eric Muhaza from the Demobilization Commission. “We want them to know that we help them with their re-integration.”
A new start
Silvain should have been packing to leave, but he will have to stay for the time being, until his family is found.
“It’s great here. I can go to school, be safe and study law,” he says. “I would love to become a lawyer.”
Under its child protection programme, UNICEF supports the Rwanda Demobilization Commission’s efforts to assist boys like Silvain. Since its opening in 2006, the Lake Muhazi Centre has helped nearly 800 children to find their families and get ready for a new start in life.