“Justice must be applied to these children. And by justice, I mean more than on a domestic level, but it’s not easy; this will be a long fight.”
These are the words of Bukeni T. Waruzi, the Executive Director of Ajedi-Ka, a volunteer organization focused on demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers in the South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Waruzi, who has worked on the issue of child soldiers for the past nine years, came to UCSB’s MultiCutural Center on Monday, April 27, along with former child soldier, Madeleine, to speak about his organization. He described his work as a process.
“It involves going to the camps to meet with the commanders and negotiating with them to get the children back home. But before that, I have to negotiate with their parents so they can accommodate them again,” Waruzi said. “And then I try to look for funds to support their social and economic reintegration. But that alone is not enough.”
In 2005, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1612, which implements a monitoring and reporting method to protect children in armed conflict. The Security Council strongly condemned the recruitment and use of child soldiers, presenting detailed regulations in the resolution. Although Waruzi feels that Resolution 1612 is a positive step, he knows that much more must be done. He has spoken internationally about the issue, raised awareness among high schools and universities, generated debates about the child soldiers, and even made his own film.
“Right now, the main issue is figuring out how to support the reintegration of the child soldiers. It’s not always easy; many parents do not have the means to support their children or pay for them to go to school,” Waruzi said. He further highlights the issue of reintegration in his film, “A Duty to Protect.” The film shows that not all of the child soldiers are abducted or recruited by force; some of them are recruited as volunteers. The reasons for this willingness to participate in the militia vary, but often times children feel compelled to join either because they can’t afford to go to school or because they receive support to join from their parents and community.
“I wanted to try to raise awareness to make sure that the parents and the community themselves understood what is the danger of sending their kids into militia groups,” Waruzi said.” So I started shooting the film, and I was even myself surprised; I didn’t know that the children who had been reintegrated didn’t tell their parents about what had happened. By showing the film and showing the children telling their stories about how they were being treated and how they were being forced to kill some of their family members, how they were being forced to smoke marijuana, these kinds of stories shocked the parents.” After going from village to village and screening his film to the communities, Waruzi began to see a difference in the attitudes toward children joining the militia.
Since then, the Ajedi-Ka organization has even been able to monitor the decrease in militia volunteers. “The forced recruitment was always there, but now there isn’t as much voluntary recruitment,” Waruzi said. “It’s not just because of our films necessarily, but in some places, it really has helped a lot to make the parents aware of the danger of sending their kids to the camps.”
Along with raising awareness about child soldiers in Africa, Waruzi and the Ajedi-Ka organization have also demobilized more than 300 children. Among these is former child soldier, Madeleine, who came with Waruzi on Monday to speak about her experiences. Kidnapped at eleven years old, Madeleine spent three years in the army before Waruzi came to her camp and talked to her commanders. She was reunited with her family, and now works with Waruzi to raise awareness about the issue in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“My job is to advise the child soldiers and tell them how they can join the community and how to find their futures,” Madeleine said. “I give speeches about child soldiers, especially girls, and how a lot of them come home with babies. I made all of these speeches, and my commanders in my country heard about everything that I said. So I called my parents and they said that I couldn’t come back because my commanders were looking for me. So I’ve been staying with Bukeni and going to school in New York.”
The powerful words of both Madeleine and Waruzi left many feeling inspired, wondering what they personally can do to help. To many, the child soldiers in Africa may seem out of reach. Waruzi, however, believes that we hold quite a bit of power.
“I think it is a blessing to be living in this country, and there are so many things that can be done,” he said. “First, I always believe in education. This is the most important resource that we can provide for any child. And this is one of the ways you can help. The second way is the legislators in the U.S. They have so much power to influence politics in the global South. We know that our countries have very bad policies when it comes to child protection. The U.S. legislature can pressure those countries on issues of protection of children and women.”
Nicolas Pascal, founder of the Human Rights Group at UCSB, which hosted the event, also agrees that there is still much more that can be done to help.
“So far we’ve been centered on child rights issues, but we’re not limited. We feel that there is a great deal of potential for collaborative efforts,” Pascal said. The Human Rights Group is an advocacy-based student group on campus that is interested in promoting awareness of and taking action toward correcting human rights abuses. The group is currently working on a more local issue dealing with incarcerated individuals in California who have received life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as minors.
“I think the exciting thing about The Human Rights Group is that it’s really limitless, and there’s no one particular issue that we confine ourselves to,” Pascal said. “It’s just the universal issue of human rights. As long as we have the resources, the ability, and the vision, then that project can take off and find a home.”
Those who are interested in finding out more about human rights are encouraged to attend the Human Rights Group meetings every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in the Orfalea Center.