Buakvu, Congo — This is a town of stomach-jarring dirt streets, and fences topped with concertina wire, and charming lake vistas, and wandering goats, and burning trash, and cock crows, and soldiers with assault rifles, and banks of bougainvillea that reach two stories high. It is also a town with the world’s most brutal war just down the road.
At the center of Bukavu is a facility that houses and helps former child soldiers. One of the boys I met was 11. “They have killed,” explained one counselor, “and sometimes eaten the flesh of other people. . . . Sometimes a child is 6 years old when they start, and spends seven years in the army. They are trained to think that the civilian is nothing.”
The counselors attempt to gain the boys’ confidence, introduce them to sports to “discharge negative energy,” teach them respect for women, find out and encourage their aspirations, and eventually place them with relatives or foster parents. But the work is difficult. “They are traumatized,” says the counselor, “and you get traumatized as well.”
On the wall of the facility is a list of the militia groups from which the children have been rescued. Thirteen different groups are identified, with names that seem like random Scrabble tiles — MLC and UPC and FDLR. This is one reason that Americans have paid little attention to the war in Congo — it is complicated, and determining the good guys from the bad is not easy. But for nearly a decade, this war among abbreviations has displaced millions of civilians, destroyed Congo’s health and judicial systems, and produced war crimes beyond decent imagination.