Peter Lamm is the Vice Chair of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF Board of Directors. He sent this from Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was on a field visit to see UNICEF-supported programs.
All week I have been anxiously anticipating the visit to the center for former child soldiers – how damaged and unreachable would I find these boy soldiers who had been snatched from their homes and families by various rebel armies and forced to carry a rifle and fight? To my surprise, the experience was hopeful and uplifting.
The UNICEF sponsored program is designed to address four critical issues: Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration, (DDRR).
The facility that houses the boys for the 90 day DDRR process is located in a series of buildings and bunkrooms in the center of Bukavu, a city in Eastern Congo not far from rebel activity. UNICEF has provided training, guidance and supplies to support this dynamic program, which has been in existence since 1986.
The director of this program has been working with child soldiers for more than 25 years and exhibited a level of knowledge and compassion that was reassuring.
He described the process of negotiating the release of the child soldiers from their rebel captors with the eventual goal of repatriating these teens with their families. While the boys’ instinct is to immediately return home, assuming home still exists, they need to relearn a range of skills and civilized behavior that will be essential to successful reintegration. The healing process is slow. The first few weeks are particularly difficult. The boys begin to relearn replacing violence and aggression with discussion and compromise. But the process is facilitated by the boys’ palpable joy of being in a safe haven, no longer participating in forced daily violence.
350 boys have been through the facility since January 2010, thousands since its inception. Most of the boys were 13-17 although some were younger. Many had been kidnapped 5 years ago.
Within the first month, the boys have adopted a routine and are starting to thrive in the safe environment. Over the next couple of months they’re taught critical life skills. They cook and clean for themselves and they’re physically nursed back to a state of relative health given the resource constraints. The next step is to rejoin their families.
The feeling inside the facility is remarkable. We gathered in a room surrounded by 50 – 60 former child soldiers. Their eyes are alive, their smiles are huge and their energy is infectious–not at all what I anticipated. They described their immediate hopes–to return home to family. They described their aspirations–President, football player, UNICEF worker. And of course no more war.
Then they presented me with a letter they had written thanking me, UNICEF and the United States for the help we have provided. They described the importance of friendship. They asked me to take their message of thanks and friendship back to the United States. As I left they formed a circle to sing, dance and to thank UNICEF for being with them when they needed it most.
Learn more about UNICEF’S efforts to help former child soldiers and stop child trafficking and exploitation.