By Junior Nzita Nsuami
My name is Junior Nzita Nsuami and I am a former child soldier. My story is long and difficult to tell. My childhood was not like other children’s. It was stolen, confiscated, and deprived of the love of my mother and the protection of my country.
In 1996, I left the home of my parents who were living in Goma, the capital of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in order to continue my studies in Kiondo, a remote village. It was there that my friends and I were surprised one day by the soldiers of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo – AFDL), who forced us to join their ranks.
Without my consent, or that of my parents, I became a soldier at the age of twelve, forced to fight the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. Soon after our forced recruitment, my friends and I were transferred to a training camp where we were taught how to use guns, how to kill, and how to hate our fellow human beings.
One year later, in 1997, Mobutu was removed from power. The AFDL had fulfilled its mission, but mine continued. I was still a child soldier. After having been moved to Matadi, a port city in Bas-Congo, the desire to resume my studies and have a normal school life began to overwhelm me daily. I asked my commander if I could be put on extended leave and in 2000, I was able to go back to school. I had been forced to leave school when I was twelve years old. I was now fifteen and had spent three long, difficult years in another world, carrying a gun instead of a book bag, a bayonet for a pen, and ammunition instead of school books.
My reintegration into society was painful. I had to learn again how to live a normal life, to change my habits and to think differently. I had to become a citizen who respects his neighbors, his friends and his community. It was a major change. After having spent years witnessing abuse of all kinds, I realized that it was time to protect the land, the richness and beauty of my country, and to work to reconstruct my nation.
In October of 2001, I had the good fortune to be adopted by a family who were able to offer me a stable and supportive living environment as I resumed my studies. Four years later, I graduated with a degree in Social Sciences. In 2006, when the national commission for Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration arrived in Matadi to urge all former child soldiers to leave the army and reintegrate into normal life, I was ready.Off I went to sign my official demobilization papers. Ten years had passed between my recruitment and my demobilization.
In DRC and other places around the world, there are hundreds of thousands of children who were or are still soldiers. Many child soldiers find they are not accepted back into their families and local communities. They’re seen as strangers and feared, considered to be violent, drug abusers, and dangerous because of the crimes they were made to commit.
Deeply affected by my own experience, since my demobilization, I have devoted myself to community work to help disadvantaged children. I hope my story can serve as an example to help them avoid what happened to me. In December 2010, I created the association “Peace for Children” (Paix pour l’enfance).
Based in Kinshasa, the association provides moral and material support to those children who are rejected by their own societies. It facilitates mediation between marginalized children living in the streets and their families to help them reintegrate into the family home.
The association also provides support to hundreds of needy children who wish to return to school. I am convinced that education is the way for children to see a brighter future. My colleagues and I are in the process of creating a center for literacy, education and manual skills training. We are also establishing a shelter that will house children awaiting reintegration into their families.
Our association is also involved in outreach and awareness-raising activities on the protection of children’s rights by sharing articles and other information. It is important that children learn about their rights so they can have the tools to prevent recruitment by armed groups.I also tell children about my own story so that they understand the danger and consequences of the life of the child soldier.
For the future, I hope that all children have equal opportunity to succeed in life—in other words, that their childhoods are all protected and they have the chance to grow up safely. I also ask that no one reject these former child soldiers. A child’s place is in the family, the school, and not in armed forces or groups waging war. I still work every day to build my future and I hope to have the chance to continue my studies to be able to better defend the fundamental rights of children.
Junior Nzita wrote a book in which he recounts how his life was changed by his forced recruitment at the age of 12. His book “If my life as a child soldier could be told” is available from Perseus Books. Proceeds from the sale of the book go to the projects of the Peace for Children association.