For two years, two Congolese have been running theatre workshops for former child soldiers in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The workshops and theatre productions aim to help these young former soldiers reintegrate back into society, primarily by changing attitudes towards them.
According to Unicef, at least 3,200 children are part of armed groups operating in the DR Congo today. However, the United Nations’ special mission in the country, dubbed Monusco, estimates that there as many as 4,000 child soldiers in Kasaï and the east of the country alone.
Some child soldiers do manage to leave these armed groups, with the help of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes run by NGOs, the United Nations and the Congolese authorities.
But for Joseph Tsongo, a blogger and journalist who lives in the district of Rutshuru in the northeastern province of Nord-Kivu, these programmes are not enough. In his area, there are more than 70 armed groups.
"Former child soldiers are often rejected by their community"
Most reintegration programmes are focused on the economic side of it: they help the children to learn a skill, but in my opinion the social aspect isn’t given the attention it needs.
Former child soldiers are often rejected by their community, who think that they are strange or dangerous. For example, their parents are often scared that their own child will kill them. And so the risk is then that they go back to these armed groups.
When armed groups recruit children, they teach them how to kill, they drug them, they use girls as sex slaves… So when these young people actually manage to leave an armed group, they are psychologically destroyed. They find it difficult to reintegrate into society because they have been fundamentally changed by war. For example, some were given positions of command, so they can’t handle suddenly being back on the same level as everyone else, or being told off by their mother.
In order to help the reintegration process of former child soldiers, Joseph Tsongo began his own programme with a friend, Eliezer Kasereka. At the beginning of 2016, they started a ‘participative theatre forum’ in the Rutshuru area, with the support of the NGO APRED-RGL.
For the last two years, around a hundred young people, including about 20 girls, have taken part in our programme. On average they are 16 to 20 years old. Some were recruited into armed groups by force; others joined them because their whole families had been killed. Some of them lived for over 10 years in the wilderness. But we also have some young people who have never taken part in fighting.
We organise theatre workshops at least once a week. When we have a new group, we always start by asking the young people about their lived experiences, so that they learn to express their emotions. During follow-up workshops, we ask them to act out what they told us previously.
We also put on shows in churches about every two months. They are generally performed in the Kiswahili language and always have two acts. In the first act, young people will perform, acting out what they lived through out in the wilderness.
"If a young person is gagged onstage, this symbolises that he won’t say anything and will just obey orders to kill”
For instance, in the video above, young people come upon a woman gardening (0:28). The video shows what happens after a rape is committed. We can also see a young person lay a cross on a coffin (2:10), symbolising violence, death and suffering. Then he starts crying, saying that his sister was killed with a machete (4:00).
In this other video, there is a young man who is gagged: this represents how he won’t say anything and will just obey orders, even if asked to kill (0:02). There is also a young person who appears with a machete to kill a woman holding a baby (2:48). Usually we stop the scene at this point, and the actors stay frozen.
Audience members disarm the actors
Then in the second half, the audience members get involved. We ask them if they have experienced anything like what the actors have portrayed, and we let them tell their stories (3:07). Then, we ask them to change what they want on stage – the actors are still frozen at this point – to make the scene less violent. Usually they’ll take away the machete that the actor is holding.
The audience is often quite affected by the play. They understand that the young people have usually never wanted to fight and that they were victims of war just like everyone. A woman told me, “I thought that they were savages, but now I understand that they were manipulated”.
As for the young actors, they say that theatre has helped them to change, to realise that there’s a life outside of the armed groups. It brings them closer to their families, and they feel more loved and integrated in their community.
Having said that, our workshops haven’t worked for everyone. Some young people didn’t manage to reintegrate themselves into their communities, and we saw them later back in the armed groups.