His childhood lost to war, teenager starts new life in Congo

By Coco McCabe
This former Congolese child soldier has now learned a new skill with which to support himself: furniture-making.

He rests his hands among the wood shavings scattered across a board on his workbench, as though touching the curls and chips reminds him of who he is now—a furniture-maker in a simple shop in Goma and, at 17, almost a man.

But not so long ago, he was a boy fighting a war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It's dark inside his shop: He works only with hand tools, as there is no electricity. But it's darker where he came from, and through memories spun from a tangle of languages—Swahili, French, English—the boyhood of Egiba Sango emerges. His real name is being withheld to protect his safety.

Sango's case is one of about 3,000 that the Concert d'Actions pour Jeunes et Enfants Défavorisés, or CAJED, has worked on since 1997. CAJED is based in Goma and is funded by Oxfam and UNICEF. Its mission is to help child soldiers recover from the trauma of their combat experiences and return to normal lives—a challenge in a place where years of conflict have left an estimated 5.4 million people dead since 1998. Between that year and 2003, about 33,000 children were among the ranks of various armed groups.

Successfully reintegrating them into community life will be essential to ensuring the lasting peace villagers in the eastern provinces long for.

A place of his own

And that's where Sango is now—joined again with everyday people doing everyday things—in a wooden shed perched on a heap of volcanic rock. A new bedstead and table stand in the dirt outside, announcing his wares and skills.

With a tool kit provided by CAJED—planes, saws, a drill, a vice, a square—Sango is making his living and paying $15 a month rent for this shed that he shares with a partner. A piece of cardboard, printed in a careful hand with project dimensions, is tacked to the wall, a counterpoint to the chaos in the shop—tools scattered on the ground, the blade of a giant knife glinting through the wood chips, a pile of chairs heaped along the back wall.

He speaks softly, his face nearly blank, as he tells a small crowd of visitors from Oxfam about the years he spent with the military—a choice he made as a very young boy to escape a life of misery.

The oldest of five children, he was 8 when his parents died—poisoned, he says, by neighbors who were jealous of his parents' efforts to improve themselves. Sango was sent to live with an uncle whose wife decided she didn't like him and treated him badly. Determined to find a better alternative, he joined a military group—and that's when his real trouble started.

Sango was just 10 at the time, and life among the soldiers was brutal. He told about how he was made to walk day and night, sometimes without food. He was forced to carry heavy loads and bore frequent beatings. One time, the soldiers punished him by cutting his leg. Pulling up his pant leg, Sango reveals an ugly scar on his right shin.

Success on the sixth try

Five times he tried to run away—once getting as far as 80 kilometers from his unit before stumbling into soldiers who recognized him and forced him to return. Finally, on his sixth attempt, he escaped for good. That was in 2005.

For two years, Sango was on his own, surviving by his wits around Goma with two other boys who had also fled their military units. They would beg for food from house to house and when one received a handout, he shared it with the others. Occasionally, they would steal to stay alive.

Eventually, one of the outreach workers from CAJED found Sango on the streets and convinced him to come to the center. Sango said he knew he needed a way to become self-sufficient. The first stop was a three-month stay at a transit center in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, where staff members work with youngsters on psychosocial issues and help prepare them to return to their families. They also track down those families and work with them to be ready to welcome their children back.

But Sango had no parents—and no place to go. Instead, he enrolled in CAJED's training program and after six months had gained enough skill to launch his own small furniture-making business.

He finishes his story, and for the first time in nearly an hour of talk, life seems to return to his face when one of the visitors asks if Sango could make him a table.

Sango flashes a smile. He's back—in his shop, in control of his life, his boyhood behind him for now.

Lessons on the hilltop

On the hilltop behind Sango's shop, how many other stories like his can be found among the children and teenagers learning to be carpenters or bakers or any of several other skills CAJED is imparting through its training programs there?

Rain pelts the metal roofs of the workshops as Gilbert Munda, CAJED's coordinator, leads a tour from the wood-fired brick oven to the electronics-repair room and into the room where girls are learning to sew on big black sewing machines.

The reality of many of the trainees' lives becomes clear in a visit to CAJED's infirmary housed in a small wooden shack with a concrete floor. There Dorotheé Mushesha, one of two nurses in a dark room with plywood walls, is pounding a root into powder. She says when the center runs out of modern medicines, she treats her patients with traditional ones from plants, and she keeps a small garden right behind the infirmary for that purpose. The root she is pounding helps the kidneys, she says.

About 20 children a day come for care. Malaria, typhoid, worms, respiratory illnesses, skin issues—Mushesha sees the gamut among the young patients.

In his office, Munda talks about the pressures that have pushed kids into the arms of military men willing to exploit their loyalty for murderous ends of their own.

Many children don't have the opportunity to go to school, he says. Poverty has a stranglehold on their families, and often the kids are unable to find work.

Human rights advocates says the recruitment of child soldiers stems from a host of deeply ingrained attitudes that hold little respect for the lives of individuals, including those of children. And compounding that is a widespread lack of basic services and social support networks.

But Munda is optimistic that with the kind of help programs like CAJED offer, children swept up in the horrors of war can recover their old lives and become productive community members.

The rain has stopped by the time the Oxfam visitors take their leave of Munda. On their way home, they again pass Sango's shop. The table and bedstead are still there. But now they are beaded with rain. No one thought to bring them in, or cover them with plastic. Maybe there was none to spare.