Child Soldiers Kick Away Demons of War
On a cloudy weekday in Goma, in the war-ravaged Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, military helicopters and UN peacekeeping forces kept passing a road next to a soccer field. Oblivious to the sights and sounds that come with living in a conflict zone, over a hundred boys and girls kept kicking a soccer ball over a field covered with dried lava rocks.
Amani, their coach, had divided them into three groups based on age?-?adults, teenagers, and younger kids. After showing the youngest group some warm-up techniques, he dashed off to check on the teenagers.
“We have a lot of problems here in Congo,” said Amani, a 37-year-old father of three. Amani himself has his fair share: he’s been unemployed for years, despite some training as a sports teacher, and is worried about his family’s future. Having lived in Goma for his entire life, he has lived through the world’s deadliest war since the Second World War, which took the lives of more than 5.4 million of his fellow citizens. But that doesn’t stop him from giving back to his community in the best way he can.
As a full-time volunteer football coach, he is currently training over 150 adults and children to play soccer?-?and in doing so, prevents them from returning to the horrors of being recruited as a child soldier. It may also, crucially, help participants heal and reintegrate themselves into civilian society.
“When people watch or play football, they forget about all their problems,” he said.
Death tolls have waned since the 1990s, but the conflict remains unresolved. In the country’s eastern provinces, there are still over forty active armed groups.
The political situation has long been volatile in this resource-rich former Belgian colony?-?and may face turbulent times ahead. The presidential elections were originally planned to take place in November 2016. However, the current President Joseph Kabila was reluctant to leave power and delayed elections to December 2018 ?-?creating an uproar that has already killed scores of people.
Children in Goma might be vulnerable once again to child soldier recruitment. And without a successful re-integration of former child soldiers, many of them are under the risk of returning back to the bush to fight.
Marie [not her real name], a 17-year-old former child soldier has seen it first hand. “There were many girls [who were previously child soldiers] in the area, but the majority went back to the bush,” she said. “They were not well accepted here. People discriminated against them.”
Amani is aware of the fragility of the situation. “[Children in Goma] don’t have after school activities, holidays or courses,” he said. “A lot of them don’t even go to school. They don’t have anything to do. A person might become dangerous if they don’t have anything to do. But when children come here and play football, they don’t go to the bush. They learn to play instead of fight.”
Amani also realizes the potential of football to reconcile and rehabilitate old wounds and bring communities together. He knows that there are former child soldiers among the people he’s training.
“The past is past now,” he said. “We cannot judge people on the mistakes that they made. All we can do is to try to prevent new mistakes.”
“Football is dirt cheap,” said Bushini. “All you need is a field, a ball, and a coach?-?and you can impact the lives of dozens of children. It can teach them how to be good citizens. Football brings everybody from diverse backgrounds together. A child who can play and work in a team wouldn’t fight.”
23-year-old Jean-Pierre [not his real name], another former child soldier from North Kivu, came back to Goma several years ago after being affiliated with an armed group since his pre-teen years.
“I like going to the church on Sunday and playing football,” he said. “I made a lot of new friends and [my community] begins to understand I am a normal person.”
According to Sean Poole, Director of International Programmes at the Invisible Children, an organization working with child soldiers in neighboring Uganda, when child soldiers leave the violent life behind and go back to their place of origin, it’s far from a happy ending for both the children and their communities.
Once they’re no longer in the bush among rebels and come back, they have a rude awakening about what they have done, and go through an existential crisis, Poole explained.
“It’s not just medicine and education that these children need,” he said. “They didn’t have a normal childhood. It’s a sobering experience when these individuals come out of the bush?-?where they spent at least a decade. It’s usually more than half their lives. A very easy win for these children is to create time and space to play?-?to have a slice of a normal childhood.”
Football is only a start to the country’s many woes, but it offers a helpful starting point for reconstruction.
“They play it purely out of passion and joy,” said Amani. “Football gives them hope for the future and a [sense of normalcy] in their daily lives. And if they don’t go to the bush but enjoy themselves, I have done my job.”
The Development Set is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We retain editorial independence. // The Creative Commons license applies only to the text of this article. All rights are reserved in the images. If you’d like to reproduce the text for noncommercial purposes, please contact us. Didem Tali travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo as an African Great Lakes Fellow of the International Women’s Media Foundation.