Recovering from the trauma

Germany is committed to protecting the rights of children – especially when they are being abused as soldiers.
by Bettina Rühl

A circular saw buzzes outside, a hammer resounds on hard metal, and more noises are echoing from inside the workshop – people are busy at work. But here inside where I am, it’s quiet, except for the voices of three men. One of them is a young Congolese man, who often gazes down at his feet as he speaks, tugs at the arm of his pullover and hardly raises his voice above a whisper. The second man is the German psychologist Tobias Hecker, and the third is an interpreter who translates the conversation.

The room in which the three men are sitting belongs to a training centre for young adults in the provincial capital Goma in the east of the Congo. The sign at the entrance of the Tumani Centre clearly indicates the centre’s purpose: education and care for traumatized adolescents and young adults. And there are many such young people in Goma: youths who grew up on the streets, under-age mothers, former child soldiers. The shy 18-year-old sitting opposite Tobias Hecker is one of the children who once fought. He won’t tell 
us his name, because he is scared that his victims will take revenge. So let us call him Philippe.

Tobias Hecker still has no idea what kinds of crimes Philippe might have committed in the past years. This is only their second session together. Nevertheless, Hecker has already gained an impression of Philippe: “I’m convinced he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.” It’s not simply because the youth has permanent nightmares. Although he is basically a shy person, he often has angry outbursts, says Hecker. “All of a sudden, he can become aggressive and potentially quite dangerous.” Hecker is a member of a team surrounding the psychologist Thomas Elbert from Konstanz. The team has continued developing classic trauma therapy, so that now the method can be used for perpetrators as well. This is because, irrespective of whether they were perpetrators or victims, many children and young people have been badly traumatized by their experiences of violence and crises which have often continued for many long years.

This obviously applies to Philippe as well. After the therapy session, he is prepared to tell us more about his personal story. For three years he fought for two different armed groups in the Congo. At first he was coerced into fighting, and then he volunteered. He left twice in the hope of returning to a normal life. The third time, he took up arms again of his own accord. Now, he is trying yet again to find a footing in 
everyday life. But the memories of the war still cling to him. “When I dream, I often see myself killing someone, or how I am being killed myself,” he says in a very quiet voice. “How a bullet hits me. I fall to the ground – and then I wake up, before I die. But when I wake up, I’m filled with fear and panic. ” He is still unable to say what exactly he has done, and what he himself has suffered.

Children have been used as fighters in armed conflicts around the globe for very many years. They are easier to recruit 
and often react to orders with more brutality than adult militiamen. The estimated number of child soldiers around the globe is 250,000. Many of them are fighting in Africa, for instance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in West-African Mali.

Members of development aid organizations, psychologists and other specialists have been trying for years to help former child soldiers to return to civilian life. Many of these projects are supported by Germany. In the United Nations Security Council, Germany has stood up for the worldwide protection of children, including those who are abused as child soldiers. The Federal Government used its Security Council membership in 2011 and 2012 to 
be actively involved as chair of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict. A resolution, which was introduced by Germany and was unanimously accepted, outlawed attacks on schools and hospitals in an effort to improve the protection of children.

The aim of Germany’s development cooperation with the affected partner countries is to support the reintegration of former child soldiers into society and thus create a perspective for the future. The most important key here is education and training. The members of armed groups have little or no access to these. This is why, in post-war countries, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) is supporting many vocational training centres in which disadvantaged young people receive training. In addition to this, conversation circles are organized which often have positive effects, even though they are not professional therapy sessions. Here, the young people who are developing their self-awareness include former street children, says a GIZ representative. The situation is similar to that of Philippe in Goma, who is also learning together with under-age mothers, HIV patients, former street children or former prostitutes.

Promoting human rights, especially the rights of children, is a cross-cutting topic, stresses Nieves Alvarez who is responsible at the GIZ for supporting the rights of 
children and young people. She says: “Upholding these rights in all development cooperation projects has been a binding commitment since 2011.” Germany has undertaken to implement UN Convention 
on the Rights of the Child and other internationally agreed rights on the protection of children and young people. Alvarez works to ensure that everyone involved 
in development cooperation consciously considers especially the rights of children in all GIZ projects, no matter whether a well is being constructed or a health 
centre is being set up.

“People forget all too easily, that children are being robbed of their rights not only in war situations,” she says. “In fact, there many practices in African everyday life that threaten their rights.” As examples Alvarez names child trafficking, child marriages and genital mutilation of young girls. All of these things are deeply rooted in society, and it takes time for positive changes to evolve. This makes it all the more important to seek broader solution approaches, instead of just thinking in terms of individual projects.

by Bettina Rühl