Child soldiers in Africa: Mukele’s story

Jul 13, 2021
The Rwandan genocide ended 27 years ago this month. But it marked the beginning of another conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that continues to this day.  

In 1994, as millions of Rwandans escaped across the border into DRC, the balance of power was turned upside down, leading to extreme ethnic tension and the formation of more than 130 armed groups, each vying for control. Nearly 30 years later, eastern DRC has been embroiled in multiple regional wars with ongoing terrorization and atrocities that have forced millions of people from their homes.  

Child Soldiers in Africa

A recent UN report verified that 8,521 children were used as soldiers in 2020, while another 2,674 children were killed and 5,748 injured in various conflicts. According to some estimates, up to 40% of child soldiers are in Africa. Eastern DRC has amongst the highest numbers of child soldiers in Africa and the world. While there is no precise data, thousands of boys and girls have been actively recruited or conscripted, accounting for up to 60% of militia forces. Known locally as “kadagos”, a Swahili term meaning “little ones”, child soldiers have been used by all sides throughout the decades of conflict in the region. 

*“Mukele”, 17, a former child soldier, has found a new life as a carpenter. He tells his story in his own words.

A young man from DRC wears  a blue shirt and looks left.
Mukele joined a militia when he was a just 13 years old. But the violence he witnessed soon had him praying for a new life. Photo: Brett Tarver

"People were getting killed every day. And one day, people came to our neighbourhood and said: “please, our people are being killed, we are suffering, let us organize ourselves to fight them.

"I joined the **militia when I was 13 and I lived in the bush fighting other groups. I was eager to get involved and fight to stop our people from being slaughtered. Many join during public demonstrations when they are angry and they want change. But many others are forced to join these armed groups, they come through your neighbourhood and if they see you, they tell you to come with them.

"I was in the third militia group and became a bodyguard for the commander. There were many people killed on both sides and even in our group. Out of the 380 of us, more than 80 were killed in the fighting. I prayed to leave so that I could start another life.

"One day soldiers surrounded our camp and asked us to join them. But we refused. There was fighting for three days and I was shot in the leg and wounded. I kept very quiet and hid under a toilet in a latrine. After a few more days I left my hiding spot to try to get my wound treated. But the soldiers found me and began shooting at me. I begged to surrender. I told them if they took me to a hospital, I would give them information about our group. But they took me to a jail instead. And I stayed at the jail for more than two weeks without being treated. But I survived. And this is how I came out of the bush.

"(After I healed), World Vision helped bring me to the Rebound centre where I learned to became a carpenter. I make cupboards, chairs, armchairs, sofas and stools in this shop.

a young man from DRC measures a piece of wood with a ruler in a workshop.
At the Rebound Center in Butembo, Eastern DRC, young people who have been affected by armed conflict practice their carpentry skills in an effort to move beyond survival to build a new life. Photo: Patrick Meinhardt

"My hope for the future is to become the head of a family, to develop my work so that in the future I can have my own home and to support my brothers and sisters who come from our village. I don’t want to repeat the same life as I had in the bush (as a child soldier)."

Mukele’s recovery through Rebound

World Vision’s Rebound project has been supporting former child soldiers and victims of sexual abuse in eastern DRC since 2012. The program provides youth targeted for violence with alternatives, including vocational work and life skills training.

Learn more about how you can help the most vulnerable children in the eastern DRC through World Vision’s Raw Hope initiative. 

*name changed to protect his identity   **name of armed group withheld for safety reasons

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