As I drive to Beni, a large city in the Grand Nord region – in the province of North Kivu (in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo) – to assess the situation of the children supported by Unicef , I cannot help but witness the high number of victims of the armed conflict: thousands of people live in these areas where entire villages can be destroyed from one day to the next. In these areas, plagued by hundreds of non-state armed groups, children and girls in particular bear the brunt of brutal attacks by armed groups who do not hesitate to kill, kidnap or forcibly recruit them to join their ranks.
Every time I visit, I make a point of spending time with the teenagers. Because of the horrors girls face on a daily basis in these conflict-affected regions, these meetings are often held in a small space and in private. Especially those abducted by armed groups who later managed to return to their communities, almost always having fled at risk of their lives. Most of them have not had the opportunity to speak to their families and communities about what happened to them in captivity, and experience has taught me that they share some of the trauma they have experienced without fear of trial or reprisals Referring this to a qualified professional can be a great relief to them and is part of their healing.
In 2022 alone, the United Nations verified and documented nearly 3,500 serious violations against children, affecting more than 3,000 boys and girls.
At my last meeting, I met Sifa (not her real name to protect her identity), a 16-year-old girl with a tiny build, who told me in a low voice that she had been kidnapped from her own home about 100 kilometers away east of Beni during a night attack on his village by an armed group. Was 14 years old. After several days of intense bush walks, during which she and other girls were raped by their captors, they finally reached the rebel camp, where she was handed over to a 40-year-old man. This ex-combatant raped and exploited her continuously during the two years of her imprisonment.
Kidnapped girls, slaves
Life in the mountains is very difficult; The girls are used to carrying heavy loads and have to work day and night. “I lived slavery at the hands of the armed group. They have no mercy on the girls they kidnap,” she tells me. Girls were also often severely beaten and attempted escapes were murdered.
In fact, children living in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are often subjected to extreme violence and abuse due to the ongoing armed conflicts waged by more than 140 rebel groups active in the province. In 2022 alone, the United Nations verified and documented nearly 3,500 serious human rights violations against children, affecting more than 3,000 children. The Democratic Republic of the Congo consistently ranks in the top 5 countries in the world for the highest number of serious assaults against children in situations of armed conflict and is the country with the highest number of children recruited into armed forces and groups since 2005.
I lived slavery at the hands of the armed group. They have no mercy for the girls they kidnap
Sifa, was kidnapped by an armed group
In these often difficult-to-reach areas, UNICEF’s work focuses on reuniting children with their families, providing temporary care, mental health and psychosocial support, and socio-economic and educational reintegration of minors captured by armed groups or their families on the run have lost attacks. UNICEF is also focused on helping survivors of sexual and gender-based violence like Sifa by providing them with psychosocial support, education, legal and training services so they can resume as normal a life as possible.
Despite all the suffering she has endured, Sifa was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel when she was released after a crackdown by the military and was later helped by one of our allies to return to her family and her life in her community to continue .
As we say goodbye after a long and emotional meeting, Sifa looks at the little baby she has been carrying in her arms the whole time and whispers, “I often fear that he will become a criminal like his father.”
Ramatou Tour He is Head of UNICEF Child Protection in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
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