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A 15-year-old combatant with the rebel Union for Congolese Patriots, or UPC, standing guard at a rally in Bunia, Congo, in this recent picture.
``I hid under the bed and saw every moment of their death,'' he said, though he remembers little of the detail except the sound of rain and the darkness of the night outside. After months of sleeping on the streets of Bunia, in the north-east of the vast central African country, Eddie joined the rebel forces. The only remnant of his past life is the silver-plated watch that belonged to his father.
Bunia lies in Ituri, a region of dense forests east of the Ugandan border torn between rival rebel forces and rag-tag militias, fighting for control of land and the lucrative minerals hidden in the rich red soil.
Fighting between the Hema and Lendu tribes has often troubled the region. Thousands have been killed by combatants wielding machetes, spears and arrows. Tensions between numerous rebel groups in the area have added to the chaos, bringing guns, rapes, looting and even cannibalism to the fray. Child soldiers have been drafted into the conflict all over the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but aid workers say Ituri is the worst affected region.
Children as young as six have reportedly been dragged onto the battlefield, humanitarian workers say. There are dozens of child soldiers wandering around Bunia's dusty streets, army fatigues sagging round their ankles and rifles or sub-machine guns weighing on their little arms. Most seem brainwashed, happy and proud of their new status.
``I enjoy being with the Afandes (rebel commander),'' said one 15-year-old who works as an escort to one of the rebel leaders. Though the rebels deny they are forcibly recruiting children, one U.N. official in Bunia said as much as 70 per cent of the rebel forces were below the age of 18. ``This is the most affected province in the Democratic Republic of Congo,'' a social worker in Bunia said. ``Figures show that the average age of the soldiers here is 16 years old.''
Djuma Baudoin, a coordinator for the SOS humanitarian organisation in Bunia, said the rebels like the malleability of their youngest recruits. ``They have no other interests, they never disobey their commanders,'' he said. ``Many of them die on the battlefields, because they are sent ahead. Others are traumatised by what they see during clashes.'' The ethnic tensions between Hemas, who live primarily from crops, and Lendus who rely on both cattle and cultivation, have worsened the situation, with some parents forcing their children to take up arms and fight for their tribe.
``Some parents find it a tribal obligation for children to become warriors,'' Mr. Baudoin said. ``There are thousands of children within these tribes who are also armed.''
The Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) rebel group that controls parts of Bunia blames non-governmental organisations for failing to take care of the many orphans in the region. The UPC president, Thomas Lubanga, said the loss of parents pushes many young children to join his forces. ``I asked Save the Children to assist us but little has been done,'' he said. Despite peace deals aiming to try to end the war that has ravaged Congo since 1998, the conflict in Ituri is far from over.
Fighting intensified in the last months of 2002, and about 150,000 civilians have fled their homes. The U.N. has accused both Rwanda and Uganda two of many foreign armies sucked into Congo's war of building up troops in mineral-rich Ituri, despite promises to withdraw.
Aid workers say the rampant poverty in the region will continue to push children to arms as long as there is a war to be fought. Having dropped out of school, their parents too poor to put food on their tables, a life in rebel ranks is understandably attractive.
Many contract sexually transmitted diseases, most will be traumatised. ``Life here is a catastrophe,'' Mr. Baudoin said. ``We cannot do much in terms of helping these child soldiers. We can only hope the security situation will improve before we can help in demobilising them.''
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