BENI - Last June, with rebel groups trying to force him to enroll, Paluku managed to escape into the Rwenzori mountains, in northeastern Congo.
Near his 20th birthday, this native of Eringeti, about 400 kilometers to the north of the Congolese capital, Goma, is hardly the only one to have fled a region where armed groups are forcibly recruiting young men and children, to join their ranks.
Around 100 young people, from the surrounding villages of Eringeti, Maimoya, Luna, Kyavinyonge and Karuruma also left their homes to take refuge in this northeastern city of Beni. The same thing is happening in Rutshuru, where children and young people are trying to escape forced recruitment by the M23 rebels, who control the territory there.
"We won't throw away our lives for a little money. We saw what happened to our brothers in the 1996 war of independence. Today, they are poor and injured," says Matthieu, who refuesed an armed militia's offer of $200 to join.
Fighting broke out in April in the northeast region of North Kivu between M23 rebels and government forces following disagreements over a 2009 peace accord that integrated National Congress Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels into the national army. The M23 are former CNDP members who believe the deal was not properly implemented by the Kabila regime, which they oppose. According to the UN, the violence in eastern Congo has displaced nearly half a million people since April.
Still, a majority of young in Beni are saying 'No' to joining the rebel groups. This is in stark contrast with 1996 and the war of independence, where young people and children could be seen fighting alongside the rebels to end Marshal Mobutu’s dictatorship. These same youths also fought during the rebellion movements between 1998 and 2003.
Youth organizations are mobilizing and asking their peers not to respond to solicitations from militia recruiters. The Union of Young People for the Development of the Town and Territory of Beni (UJDTB) released a statement condemning the use of child soldiers in enemy troops, saying that the militias enrolling children would face justice for war crimes.
Whistles and drums
If, in the 'great north' of North Kivu (Beni, Lubero and Butembo), youths shy away from recruitment, it's not always the case elsewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Masisi Rutshuru and around Goma, for example, you find a few who seem tempted. "We have friends who became colonels, majors. Their life has completely changed. Some have even bought villas and cars. Having taken part in the rebellion, they've become rich and untouchable," says a youth from Goma, ready to fight on the side of the M23 rebellion.
Others say that joining the M23 is the only way to protect their villages. "Our community has been marginalized for a long time, now is the time to make our voices heard... by force,” another Goma youth tells us. He is whispering so that the other youths, who for the most part oppose the M23, don't hear him.
Protests started two months ago by organizations in North Kivu and the Catholic Church have been instrumental in deterring young from joining the rebel movement. Every day at midday, the residents whistle and play drums for five minutes on the streets of Beni; they are showing they oppose the violence raging in eastern Congo.
"We haven't earned anything from the previous rebellions, if anything we've lost our parents and our sisters have been raped. A curse on every politician who supports this war," says Gilbert Kambale, president of an NGO in Beni.
To those who are tempted to join the armed groups, Sabimana Hategeka, a former soldier who fought in the rebel movement in North Kivu, says: "I regret all the time wasted fighting on the side of the armed groups. All of my friends graduated but me, it’s too late to start learning a trade now."