Santa Barbara Monday afternoon, a crowd of more than 150 packed the UCSB MultiCultural Center Theater to hear 15-year-old Madeleine speak and to watch two short films on the topic of child soldiery.
Four years ago, Madeleine was recruited by the Mai-Mai militia of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to fight in the Second Congo War. She was a soldier for three years until Bukeni Waruzi, executive director of the organization Ajedi-ka, rescued her, helped her demobilize, and provided her with rehabilitative services.
Three months after she left the armed forces, Madeleine was invited by the UN to speak out against child soldiery at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Soon after she delivered her message, she learned from her parents that her ex-commander was hunting for her and that she could not safely return to her country.
Today, Madeleine attends school in Brooklyn and stays with Waruzi, who is still waging a passionate war on child soldiery.
Waruzi has been working for nine years to demobilize child soldiers in the DRC; so far, he’s made significant strides. In 2005, he met with ICC officials to discuss the gravity of the situation in the DRC. One year later, the court put Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga, a recruiter of child soldiers, behind bars. Waruzi has also created several documentaries in order to communicate his message to a wider audience, two of which he screened at Monday’s event.
The first, A Duty to Protect: Justice for Child Soldiers in the D.R.C., focuses on the experiences of female child soldiers and calls on the international community to support the ICC in its efforts to end the practice of child soldiery.
January, one of the girls featured in the film, shares that her “hatred” and “anger” at the murder of relatives inspires her to keep fighting. She felt that her “strength [was] killing with knives and rope,” and shares that she liked to do drugs “on the frontlines.” Another young girl shares that she’d rather “die” than “go back [to fight].”
The film urges “countries like the United States [to] think of these children. Thinking of these children means supporting the ICC,” the subtitles read.
The second documentary, On the Frontlines, is an attempt to dissuade Congolese villagers from allowing their children to be voluntarily recruited. It’s been screened to more than 5,000 people in the DRC and Burundi.
One child speaks on behalf of his fellow soldiers when he says: “We enlist because we don’t have money for school fees.”
Waruzi said Monday that education is the key to ending the practice of child soldiery. He joked that for the price of “two CDs of Beyonce, a child can be in school for a whole year.”
Waruzi works tirelessly to rehabilitate the children he’s able to rescue, but it’s a big job. Reintegration, Waruzi said, is an incredibly difficult process.
“Some of [these children] have been forced to kill their relatives,” he said. “When you go to negotiate [about reintegrating a child into his community], you don’t know if he has killed someone in his family.”
Still, Waruzi and Ajedi-ka press on because in parts of the DRC, “fighting is still ongoing and children are being recruited,” according to Waruzi.
He regretted that so much remains undone and called on the audience to use “all the resources and energy available in this country” to make a difference for these children.