Murhabazi Namegabe, who is in charge of the BVES rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers, says that sharing meals is a tool to build a durable peace. Copyright: WFP/Stephanie Tremblay
In Bukavu, WFP supports a program that helps former child soldiers lead a normal life again.
The boys are sitting on benches in the the courtyard of the Bukavu centre where they live. They are young - most of them are around 15 years of age - too young for what they were asked to do.
One of them, with a scar above his upper lip, explains that he was on his way to school when soldiers took him and made him one of them.
“I was always scared and hungry,” he says of his time as a child soldier.
“Rebels were stealing our cows,” explains another who decided on his own to join the army because he wanted to fight the people who were terrorizing his community. It didn’t take him long to regret his move.
The children describe long nights doing patrols and carrying gear for their superiors. They also talk of having to take part in combat.
If they talk freely now, it is because their days as child soldiers are over. At the BVES rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers in Bukavu, they are learning to be children again before going back to live with their families.
“We have close to 160 children coming from about 50 different armed groups,” explains Murhabazi Namegabe who is in charge of the centre. He adds that many of the children were enemies on the battlefield and that one of the biggest challenges is getting them to learn how to live together again.
For the past 20 years or so, the BVES centre has been working to stop children becoming soldiers and to help those who have escaped or been rescued. Through therapy, games and music, the children discover again normal life.
“We have several ways of helping them ,” said Namegabe. “When newly demobilized children arrive, we get them to sit down with others who have been here longer and they share a meal cooked with food from the World Food Programme.”
He says he uses food as a tool to build a durable peace and is convinced that sharing a meal is a first step toward achieving that goal. He says he tells the children sitting down around the tables that “everybody is the same and that the adults that led you to think you were enemies are not here and you need to learn to live together.”
WFP has been supporting the organization since 1995 and has provided meals to help rehabilitate nearly 5,000 children.
In the cafeteria, a few children are finishing up their meal, sitting together, talking and laughing. Outside, in the courtyard, three boys are standing around a tall African drum, playing music while the other children listen.
“We want to build peace, we don’t want war,” sings one of them. “We children have the right to live with our parents,” continue the others as they stand up and start dancing and clapping their hands.
Reuniting the children with their families is at the core of the centre’s work and it usually happens three months after their arrival or when it is safe to send them back to their villages.
“When children manage to live together here, they lay the foundation for a durable peace in their community,” concluded Namegabe.