Children and teenagers are being thrown into remote military prison in Congo

In the space of five months – February to June 2015, Congolese military arrested more than 200 men and boys of Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian nationality, accusing them of being members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), one of the most abusive armed groups in eastern Congo over the past two decades, believed to have taken part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that these young men, some of whom are teenagers ages 15 to 17, have been unlawfully detained since the first quarter of 2015 in the Angenga prison north-west of the DRC over allegations of war crimes committed by the FDLR in 1994. According to the report, majority of the groups’ fighters today are unlikely to have played any role in the genocide because they are too young. Hence their continued detention without a conviction, and without an access to a lawyer, or even a family member is unlawful.

Under International law, countries are advised to consider and recognize the special situation of children who have been recruited or used in armed conflict; prosecuting them should always be regarded as a measure of last resort and the purpose of any sentence should be to rehabilitate and reintegrate the child into society. With reference to this provision, Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch has called on the Congolese authorities to “immediately release” innocent detainees, especially the children. “Children who were rebel fighters should be rehabilitated, not thrown into prison and held there indefinitely,” he said.

As it turns out, quite a number of the detainees are innocent civilians who’s had nothing to do with the FDLR; most of those interviewed, including 17 children, said they had no affiliation with the group. Others were former fighters who had demobilized a while ago, and had reintegrated into civilian life. According to them, they were tricked into being arrested by the Congolese military, some on the pretext that they were to register with national and international refugee agencies in Congo, and others on the guise that they were being taken out of the military operational zone to a “safe village,” only to be arrested upon arrival.

“The local authorities came to tell us that we needed to register with the CNR [National Commission for Refugees],” a 16-year-old Rwandan Hutu boy told HRW. “But instead they led us to their military camp. Eight other boys were also tricked the same way. Eight children who had been child soldiers with the FDLR said they were handed over to the Congolese army by UN peacekeepers whom they had previously surrendered to.

Credit - Human Rights Watch
Credit – Human Rights Watch

To worsen things, these detainees are subject to the squalor of the Angenga prison. During a visit to the prison last December, HRW interviewed 52 detainees, including 29 children, and several prison officials. HRW described the condition of the prison as “dismal, with inadequate food, clean water, and medical care.” Some of them have died from illnesses since arriving at the prison. “To get medicine, you have to wait for a response from God,” one prisoner told HRW. Two prisoners were shot dead in February outside the prison grounds. Prison authorities said that they had both tried to escape.

Keeping the peace, or brewing trouble? 

Recurring reports on UN peacekeepers denotes a pattern of apathy on the job. When confronted on this issue, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) said that some of the prisoners had originally declared themselves to be adults, and that they were handed over to the Congolese army under the assumption that they would be sent to a reintegration camp, not a prison.

Also MONUSCO responded to reports on the unlawful detainment of these prisoners, including children, five months after they were informed. In a three-day joint mission last month, MONUSCO and Congolese army officials conducted hasty interviews with 94 alleged child prisoners and concluded that only 22 of them were indeed children, a report the HRW deems inaccurate.

“UN officials have been aware that children were being held at Angenga but waited for months before acting on this information,” Sawyer said. Their lackadaisical attitude has landed and kept innocent civilians, and children in prison. Henceforth, their activities in the Congo needs to be closely monitored. And the Congolese government needs to work closely with them to ensure that those children are gotten out of prison as soon as possible.

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