A resurgence of violence in Congo reached a pinnacle this week as rebel forces captured an eastern provincial capital and nearby airport, increasing widespread concerns amongst humanitarian organizations that some of those fighting on the front lines are child soldiers.
The M23 rebel fighters — originating from a group of soldiers who defected from the Congolese army seven months ago — have stretched their influence across the North Kivu province bordering Rwanda, capturing Goma on Tuesday which is home to one million people.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has accused the M23 of using child soldiers, defined by the UN as anyone under the age of 18.
The organization says children are being recruited on both sides of the Congo-Rwanda border, as part of the ongoing battle the M23 indicated Wednesday would not end until the rebels capture Congo's capital.
Shelly Whitman, director of the Halifax-based Child Soldiers Initiative, housed at Dalhousie University's Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, was in Musanze, Rwanda, Wednesday one hour northeast of Goma.
"Even though we're not very far away, people are very calm," she said
Whitman is taking part in a UN course aimed at training national level troops and peacekeepers in the region on how to approach child soldiers.
"It’s an extremely opportune time because of what’s happening," Whitman said. “There's been a heavy use of children in Congo and it’s not a secret to anybody.
"Every incarnation of every group there has used them at one point or another.”
That includes the Congolese government, which according to local media reports handed out weapons to children as M23 rebels rolled into Goma, Whitman said.
In a report to be released Friday, the United Nations accuses the M23 of grave crimes including recruiting child soldiers, summary executions and rape, according to research by the UN Group of Experts.
The international community has been slow to act on the issue, but both the UN and the U.S. agreed to sanction M23 Col. Sultani Makenga recently for allegedly having abetted the conscription of child soldiers.
Bosco Ntaganda, another prominent figure within the rebels ranks, was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2006 on three counts of crimes against humanity, as well as seven for the conscription and enlistment of child soldiers.
Witnesses have told Human Rights Watch that most of the children used in the Congo conflict were abducted from their homes,from markets, or while walking to their farms.
"There are lots of children with Ntaganda now and they send us to the front lines so we're the first to die. It's as if they take us to kill us," a former child soldier told the organization.
Whitman estimates there are around 200,000 children in Congo's conflict region that could potentially be exposed to the flow of small arms.
Rwanda has been accused by the Congolese government as recently as this week for propping up the rebel fighters with weapons.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Congolese President Joseph Kabila met Wednesday in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, in a meeting mediated by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
With the UN estimating there are 250,000 child soldiers fighting around the world, Whitman said that protecting children should be a condition of any talks "to protect the most vulnerable."
“If there are any negotiations going on, this should be the top issue right now."
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