Cylvie and Neema sit side by side in a living room stuffed with furniture in Goma, the war-torn eastern capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Petite, with matching braids and shy demeanors, the teenagers could be twins. But the pair aren’t related—and the parents and siblings sitting on couches across the room aren’t their families. What Cylvie and Neema have in common is that they were both child soldiers, abducted into fighting with the many armed groups still vying for power in eastern Congo.
Now, they’ve been taken in by strangers who will fill in for their parents while they transition back into civilian life.
It’s a makeshift foster system in a country where an estimated 2.7 million children have died as a result of what’s been dubbed “Africa’s World War” over the last two decades. The last peace treaty was signed in 2013, but the conflict’s repercussions reverberate in the eastern region, where the government maintains only loose control. Untold thousands of children are still recruited as soldiers and made to fight for the dozens of rebel groups that perpetrate the instability.
Cylvie, who is 16, looks at the floor and traces her toe in circles when she speaks. Last August, she was abducted by one of the many small tribal rebellions known as Mai Mai currently fighting around her village. After four months, she managed to escape. An uncle brought her to MONUSCO, the United Nations peacekeeping mission, where they directed her to a program that partners demobilized and unaccompanied children with temporary families.
Neema was also taken by an armed group. “I don’t remember for how long or when it was,” the 17-year-old says. Her family is still alive, but she hasn’t spoken to them since being released.
While they wait to be reunited with their real mothers and fathers, Mwamini and Sadiki Fracoize are subbing in. “I was so happy in the way they welcomed us,” Neema says of her placement. “And I found [other] children so I felt it was a good place.”
Mwamini, a stern-faced 33-year-old who is eight months pregnant with her seventh child, is clad in a blue dress, her hair wrapped in a yellow scarf. Her husband, Sadiki, is a money changer. The pair have taken in 32 children over the past three years.
When they started as foster parents in 2012, the area was caving in to the most successful rebellion in recent memory. For two decades, the Congo has battled multiple foreign-led invasions and rebel insurgencies, which have generated a death toll of over 6 million. This group, a Rwanda-backed militia called M23, succeeded in taking control of the eastern capital of Goma, a city of 1 million, despite the city’s heavy international presence and the fact that it housed the United Nations peacekeeping mission’s headquarters.
Mwamini and Sadiki decided to begin taking in children who were being demobilized from that conflict and the other rebel groups also operating in the area. “They told us about a life of suffering in the bush and I felt very sorry and wanted to welcome them in my family,” Mwamini remembers. They signed up with an organization called the Program to Fight Against Poverty (PAMI, for its French acronym), a local partner of UNICEF.
While UNICEF works with the UN peacekeeping mission and the Red Cross to locate the former soldiers’ biological families, PAMI places them with temporary parents. More than 100 vetted families partake in the program across the eastern province of North Kivu. Last year, these families took in 2,500 children. PAMI doesn’t pay participants for caring for the kids, but it gives each family $4.50 per day per child, or the equivalent in food and goods. The whole family gets free health care.
On average, the kids are with foster families for a month, but the transition process is slow.
“In an ideal world, reunification happens when a child and family agree, but also we must assess the situation,” says Andre Moussa, a child protection specialist with UNICEF. “People [in the community] discriminate and say, ‘Oh, she was the one with the military.’”
Even if families are located, Moussa also must evaluate the current climate in the area. “Sometimes everything is calm, but in two weeks the armed groups return and target children who were with them and are already trained,” he says. “We have to balance the equilibrium, and think, ‘Will they be recruited or killed?’”
If no biological family is found, UNICEF runs four autonomous homes, where older teens are responsible for taking care of themselves.
The first child that Mwamini and Sadiki received in their home was a 15-year-old boy. Ground rules were set: everything must be clean and shared, including sitting down for mealtime together. They asked their own children to consider the newcomers as siblings, and haven’t had any problems other than a small theft once.
“The key point is to show them love,” Mwamini says. “They have to feel that this mother loves us. Don’t discriminate against them. You have to give advice. Tell them, ‘You’re from another place but now we live according to rules. We are family—you have to understand you’re no longer in the bush.’”
The children typically stay for a month, and they spend their days at a PAMI transit center with other unaccompanied children. There they receive psychotherapy, which comes in part in the form of staging plays, and learning capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, to help heal from trauma and build relationships.
Further down a rocky road from Mwamini and Sadiki’s house, where clusters of homes sit behind crumbing gray walls, Riziki Batende sits on a plush chair in her modest living room. She has 12 children of her own and nine of them still live with her. To add to that, she takes in around 15 foster children a year.
At the moment, she’s playing mother to one of the four kids she was recently assigned. Beatrice is 13 years old. Unlike most of the other children re-homed by PAMI, she wasn’t a child soldier. She’s a refugee from Tanzania who made her way into Congo alone after her father was killed in fighting and she lost track of her mother. She boarded a ferry from Tanzania to southeastern Congo, and then made her way north. “I found myself like a street kid because to get food I had to beg,” she says. “I was just trying to get a better life.”
Forty-three-year-old Batende is exuberant about following her calling to help heal a generation lost to armed groups. “There are so many [children] abandoned because of what’s happening in Congo,” she says. “Imagine, a child living in the bush. We advise them that ‘to be a soldier is not good, you are living with other people now and you don’t have to think about that life.’”
But with so many kids going in and out of her door, it can be hard getting to know each one and then letting them go. A few of her many children still stay in touch once they move on. One drives over to see her with the truck he now owns. Others call or write.
“You have to love them as your own kids,” she says. “You have to live as one family.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.