12 January 2019

Rwanda: Up Close With Gafaranga, a Child Soldier Who Escaped a Militia Group

Photo: Régis Umurengezi/NewTimes
Gafaranga poses with two certificates that he was awarded with in November 2018 after completing a three-month civic and entrepreneurship course at Mutobo Demobilisation Centre in Musanze District.

He was the youngest among other members of ex-armed groups who were recently discharged from Mutobo Demobilisation Centre in Musanze District. This was the 64th intake.

Yaspi Gafaranga, 19, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to exiled Rwandan parents but when he turned 16, he was forcefully conscripted by a militia group National Council for Renewal and Democracy known for its French acronym CNRD.

CNRD is an offshoot of the FDLR, a terrorist group formed by génocidaires who have been active in the DR Congo on a mission to distabilise Rwanda.

Some of the ex-combatants previously discharged from the Mutobo centre queue to receive the Rwf60,000 financial package.

According to Gafaranga, the briefing he received from his commanders upon completing his short-term training as a new recruit was to fight until he and fellow militiamen conquered Rwanda.

"Joining the rebels was only the last option as I had been ordered to choose between doing so or getting killed entirely with my family," he told The New Times.

"Our superiors used to tell us that Rwanda is theirs exclusively and that we should always maximise our efforts to fight so as to get the country back".

He and 120 other children joined the rebellion in Gashuga Forest from Rutshuru area in the North Kivu Province.

Gafaranga said that whenever it came to going to the battlefield, children were put at the forefront and that many of his comrades died in the process.

"We were always at the forefront. I personally got shot in the leg on my first day on the battlefield while confronting Nyatura fighters (another militia group operating in DR Congo)," he recalled.

After being shot, Gafaranga was immediately abandoned by his boss but later rescued by a local faith-based organisation which intervened with medical treatment.

"While recovering, my section commander ordered me to rejoin the rebellion and when I resisted, I was detained for two months and was only released after signing to rejoin the rebellion," he said.

Gafaranga said that children rights are violated during such rebellions and thus urged the international community to rescue child soldiers whom he left in the jungles of DR Congo.

"There are still many Rwandan children in various armed groups out there in the jungles of Congo, these children are deprived of all their rights, they have been forcefully recruited and thus they do not know what they fight for".

He added that he can personally witness losses associated with being a member of an armed group, including being illiterate as he did not get an opportunity to go to school.

"I can't read or write on my own and this is a great loss to me and to my country," he lamented.

"I have to join school and study from scratch".

Returning home

Gafaranga said he was sensitised to repatriate by his mother via telephone calls since she had also repatriated three years earlier. She currently stays in Rugarika Sector of Kamonyi District in Southern Province.

Besides commencing primary education, Gafaranga is set to start pig rearing project thanks to Rwf60,000 he received from the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission (RDRC) in start-up capital after completing a three-month course in civic education and entrepreneurship.

Rehabilitation

In 2013, the Government through RDRC, established Child Ex-Combatant Rehabilitation Centre in Muhoza Sector, Musanze District. The centre caters for former child soldiers who are under 18 and helps them during rehabilitation process, support them in tracing the families and family mediation among other functions.

The centre manager, Charles Balisa, told The New Times that a repatriated child soldier who doesn't have a family stays at the centre in a bid to comply with what the law says.

"During the family tracing process, a child who has no family stays at the centre until they turn 18 as the law doesn't allow the discharge of underage personnel. Upon turning 18, one is given basic needs and Rwf60,000 to start a project to earn a living," he said

Figures from the Child Ex-Combatant Rehabilitation Centre management indicate that of the total of 1,002 former child soldiers who have been discharged since 2003, only 198 found their families.

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