Kananga (DR Congo): “For me, the war is now over.” If words alone carry weight, there are hopes that a brutal conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo may draw to an end.
The words were spoken by Mado, a hard-eyed child fighter all of 12-years-old from the deeply-feared Kamuina Nsapu militia in central Kasai region.
Along with several dozen adults, the young girl marched out of the bush and into this town, some 700 kilometres, east of Kinshasa, where they surrendered their weapons, Wednesday
There they laid down old rifles, machetes and good-luck charms at the Governor’s feet following the surprising victory of Felix Tshisekedi who was elected President after December’s elections. With them were two other children — one aged about 10 who had a red bandana around his head and a large hunting knife in his hand.
Like most of the Kamwina Nsapu fighters, Tshisekedi comes from the Luba tribe.
Red is the colour of the militia, which mixes politics with mysticism and took up arms against Kinshasa in August 2016 after its tribal chief, known as the Kamwina Nsapu, was killed by troops. Since then, the uprising has claimed at least 3,000 lives and displaced another 1.4 million people.
The conflict eased off in 2017 and the situation has further improved since Tshisekedi took office in January, ending the 18-year iron-fisted rule of Joseph Kabila.
Dressed in a filthy skirt and tattered vest, her feed bare, Mado laid down her amulet alongside a small knife and a red bandana. She was a ‘Yamama’, she explains, a girl fighter who had been encouraged to join the militia by her father.
“There were 10 young people. One of us is dead,” Mado informed. “Our job was to save our country. Before heading off to war, we went to a tshiota (initiation site) to call on our ancestors for help.”
Regional Governor Denis Kambayi, whose presence seemed to intimidate Mado, accused the militia of co-opting ‘young pre-pubescent girls by giving them amulets’. “They tell them that they are invincible by wearing the amulets,” he said.
When such children turn themselves in, they are sent to UNICEF, which takes them to a centre to help re-educate them. Mado now will get her own brand-new set of clothes and the shot at a very different future.
“I want to study,” Mado explains. “I want to become a primary school teacher.”
While the child soldiers want to go to school, the adults also have their demands from the authorities they once fought. “When we lay down our arms, we are not doing it for nothing,” said former fighter Guelord Tshimanga, known as ‘general’. “We have to find work for people. The kids should go back to school. What we want is help,” he added.