In the Kasaï region of Congo, a young boy lived with his family in a small village surrounded by lush forests and fertile fields. He was a curious and adventurous child, always eager to explore the world around him and learn new things. He wanted to study and obtain a degree.
One day, a group of armed men suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The men wore uniforms and carried guns, and they spoke a language that he did not understand. He was terrified and ran back to the village as fast as they could. But it was too late. The armed men had already captured him and taken him away from his family and friends. He didn't know what was happening or where he was being taken, but he knew that he was in grave danger.
As it turned out, the armed men were members of a militia group that had been terrorizing the region for years. They kidnapped children and forced them to fight and kill for their cause, or to act as human shields to protect their own fighters.
He was taken to a remote training camp deep in the forest, where he was taught how to use a gun and how to fight, how to kill. The training was brutal and relentless, and he quickly realized that he had no choice but to obey if he wanted to survive.
Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. From 2017 until 2020, he became more and more traumatized by the violence and bloodshed around him. He missed his family and his old life terribly, but he could never escape.
One day, while on a mission with his fellow fighters, he saw an opportunity to escape. He ran as fast as he could - this was his only chance. He didn't know where he was going or what he would do once he got there, but he knew that he had to keep running.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, he could reach a group of aid workers who were distributing food and supplies to villagers in the area. The aid workers were shocked to see a young boy like him in such a state, and they quickly took him under their wing.
Over time, he began to heal and recover from his traumatic experiences. He stayed in the camp, learning new skills such as basket making, and he made new friends who accepted him for who he was. He still missed his family and his old life, but he knew that he was lucky to be alive and to have a second chance at a brighter future.
Video by ©Vincent Tremeau
Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kasaï region has taken a devastating toll on children since fighting flared up in August 2016 and when the Kamuina Nsapa rebel militia was established. Thousands of minors were forced into enrollment and used by the militias to fight and kill or act as human shields.
The youngest children are assigned to serve as porters, to cook or to perform other menial chores. All of them have to endure what is commonly known as a ‘baptism ritual’; in which 'would-be' soldiers – regardless of age – are forced to drink mystical potions to acquire supernatural powers that are believed to protect them during combat. According to a UNICEF report, children make up 60% of armed groups in the region.
For the children who were once enrolled in the militias but managed to flee, life will never be the same again. Most of them have to start over in new villages - where people won’t know about their past - in order to prevent violent retaliation.
In the dream of a better future, how do we reintegrate these children and teenagers who faced such deep trauma into society, and break the cycle of violence that has been tearing apart their country for decades?
Children who have been forced to kill in terror groups and who have managed to escape require specialized support and care to help them recover from the trauma they have experienced. You can read more about this sensitive situation, which I have photographed and addressed in collaboration with UNICEF, as well as how UNICEF is assisting this issue here.