Fidel sits in front of me in an orange and brown striped T-shirt. It has a roller-skating motif and is emblazoned with the word "freestyle." He's shy. His glowing eyes often look down, and he occasionally bites his lip. He looks younger than his 14 years—around eight years old. It's difficult to match his face with the horrible story he tells me. Fidel is a former child soldier, but looks like any other kid.
Fidel had an 18-year-old brother who deserted the Mai-Mai, one of the eastern Congo's multitude of armed factions. Men from the group came looking for his brother at family home, but he wasn't there. Fidel was. They decided to take him instead.
"My mother begged and cried," he says. "The rebels said they'd spare me, if my mum paid them $100. But we were poor and didn't have the money."
As he was snatched away, his mother screamed. The soldiers said that they would kill her if she didn't shut up.
He still finds it difficult to play, he says. Even though he is now in safe place, he still has the memories.
"I used to carry ammunition for the soldiers as they fought on the front line. One day I saw 60 bodies dead in the battlefield. I knew then I needed to escape or I'd end up dead myself."
After six months of enduring beatings with sticks, Fidel managed to escape one night when the soldiers were sleeping. He ran two miles in darkness of the night until he reached the base of MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission for Congo.
From there, he was taken to CAJED, a Congolese NGO that rehabilitates child soldiers and other vulnerable children, and helps them reintegrate back into the community. I am at the transitional center run by CAJED and UNICEF that aims to help the children come to terms with their trauma.
After they leave the center, CAJED keeps in contact with the boys and helps them adapt to civilian life. This is a difficult stage. In a country with grinding poverty and few job prospects, many child soldiers get re-recruited. CAJED's community work aims to prevent that, and Oxfam supports CAJED at this stage.
Alongside Fidel in the transitional center, I meet Michel. Michel wears a T-shirt with a rhino on it, and has flecks of vibrant green paint on his arms and forehead. He's been painting. But despite the familiar childhood activity he was in the midst of, his mood seems much darker than Fidel's. He spent four years with a rebel group and was forced to fight.
His story starts simply. He was abducted when he left his house to get some milk. He never returned. But then the horror escalates. Michel was taught to fight. He shot people and remembers jumping over bodies in the battlefield. His friend was taken prisoner by another armed group. They discovered him hanging from a tree with blood pouring from his ears and his nose. It is horrible to learn that a 12-year-old child has seen such scenes.
The stories of children like Fidel and Michel painfully underscore why we need to find an end to horrific violence that has plagued the eastern Congo for too long. Child protection agencies have reported that Mai Mai militia in the town of Rutshuru recruited 37 children into military service the week before last. An estimated 150 children have been forcibly recruited since heavy fighting resumed in August.
Congo's armed men need to put their weapons down and find a peaceful solution to this conflict. Five millionfour hundred thousand people have died in Congo's decade-long war. The people of eastern Congo have suffered too much. We need to push our politicians to keep up the diplomatic pressure and find a political solution to this harrowing war. Only then will we be able to confine the stories of Fidel and Michel to the history books.
Names have been changed to protect identities.