He was in primary school when he first met the rebels. They arrived and promised big salaries. The poverty and insecurity the children lived in could be escaped, they swore.
Of course, once inside the rebel group, life wasn’t as it was promised.
In the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), rebels continue to recruit children into their fighting parties as a war continues to unfold against the country’s army. In the 15 years of fighting, an estimated 5 million people have been killed, and more than 1.7 million have fled the area.
Boys who are not yet teenagers have been lured into the rebel groups and are used to carry ammunition, food and other supplies before graduating to other activities.
Below, one child recounts his experience inside the rebel armies and his attempt to return to a normal childhood.
“I am Dragon Mike*, I am 17 years old and a former child soldier.
“In 2003, during the conflict with the RCD [a former rebel group] I was conscripted into the armed group then-called the FPRM [a Mayi-Mayi Jackson militia group]. I was 11 years old, in fifth class at primary school, like many other children of my age in my village.
“Three years later we were asked to integrate into the army, which I did. They took us for training. I couldn’t stand it and it didn’t take long for me to run away.
“After that, I joined another group and in the end, I joined yet another rebel group where I was appointed as a commander in that area, according to my knowledge and boldness.
“There, I controlled all of the day and night patrols and atrocities committed were reported to me.
“I don’t like talking about the atrocities, because I am sure you know what this group does to the population. And I was aware of everything. While in the armed groups, I committed all forms of violence and crimes that you can imagine.
“I have been demobilised three times.
“The first time another international organisation helped me out, but after sometime I returned in the bush because I became a wanted person. My community didn’t accept me at that time and felt my place was only in the bush with armed people.
“The second time I left the forest to live with my family in Katwiguru village, but unfortunately I found that my family was not there. They had been threatened because I was wanted for crimes. After some weeks, I learned that my mother was in Goma and I joined her. My father fled to Uganda where he is now living in a refugee camp.
“The third time was when I visited my family and my mother begged me not to return again to the bush. She did what she could as a mother to convince me and at that time I obeyed. I stayed with her and she took care of me though she had almost nothing.
“I thank World Vision and its partner for accepting me in this centre to train me in mechanics and I'm sure this job will help me in my life.
“I now feel like here is where my life belongs to. In the bush, life is hard, a survival life, and not good for children. If not secured and protected, my life is in danger. I am always afraid. All my movements are restrained because people see me as a bad person and make me feel guilty.
“But I dream of becoming a good driver. My fear is that even today I can see my old comrades in the town and they want me back in the armed forces. I wish somebody could talk to them also and let them not go back to the bush. Because I do not have demobilisation documents, I need protection.”
Dragon Mike is one of an estimated 30,000 children who have been recruited into rebel armies in the DRC. According to the United Nations, nine groups engaged in conflict in the DRC recruit or use children in their war efforts.
Initiatives to demobilise children from the armed conflict have been in operation since 2003. As a part of the work to care for former child soldiers, World Vision partners with a local organisation that offers skills training in mechanics, tailoring, carpentry and hairdressing.
World Vision and its partner also help former child soldiers obtain reintegration documents so that children can return to a normal life freely, including obtaining the demobilisation documents that prevent them from facing persecution from the government.
By Christian Kilundu
* name changed to protect child’s identity