FJA 2020 Shortlist
Category: Outstanding Investigative Reporting
Xavier Aldekoa Morales Medina, Alfons Rodríguez (Spain)
The Jungle of Kid Killers
February 18, 2020
The original publication is available via the following link:
Rodrigue and Heritier are light and shade of the same resentment. At twelve, Rodrigue is personal guard of a militia leader of a militia in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He enlisted for one sole purpose: to kill his father's murderers. Heritier use to be also a child soldier from the same rebel group, but managed to escape X years ago. Now he struggles to erase a lot of pain from his life.
Text: Xavier Aldekoa
Rodrigue’s favourites in this world were beans with rice, soccer games and dead Rwandans. The smell of beans excited him. When her mother Clodine cooked, the aroma of boiled legumes slowly rose up the slope of Ngenge, a small village of one hundred and ten houses nestled in a clearing in the middle of the Congolese jungle. Sometimes, if she lit the fire early, the fragrance mixed with the mist and settled on the top of the trees as if the smell came from God’s kitchen. Rodrigue adored his mother's beans and rice so much that he had learned to hate them. The same happened to him with soccer or his favourite subjects in school, Geography and French: he loved and hated them at the same time, for they evoked a happy past that would never return. Rodrigue was twelve and had a dream that did not match his age: he wanted to kill. Or even further: assassinate, eliminate, dismember, execute, stab, strangle, beat up and torture the men who one damn night blew open the door of their hut with a kick and shot his father dead. Rodrigue explained this episode in this way: his father had plenty of time to escape because the armed rebels preferred his mother, Clodine, instead of him. While she was stripped naked, the father could have run to save his own life as Rodrigue had done running with his three-‐year-‐old brother towards the forest. But he stayed in the house to try to avoid the rape of his wife. He paid the price. They killed him. Since that precise moment, Rodrigue has not decided yet whether he loves or hates his mother's beans. He loves the scent, but at the same time it reminds him of a time when he was just a child. Not like now, now he is something else: a child soldier. A child soldier in the Congolese jungle, on a mission. "One day I will find the people who murdered my father and avenge him. I will kill them”.
A sip of mango juice
Rodrigue has thirst for revenge. He always wears a red hat cut down to the eyebrows, a FC Barcelona shirt and an old kaláshnikov rifle crossed from shoulder to hip. He has not dropped it in four years. Rodrigue decided to enlist just a few days after the murder of his father. It perpetrated by the FDLR, a rebel group made up of those responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide who fled to the DRC (then known as Zaire),. Despite resistance from his widowed mother, the boy joined the Action for Change Movement (MAC), one of the more than forty armed militias in eastern DRC. He was then nine years old, but soon gained the trust of the group. Today, almost four years later, he is a soldier among them. he forms the personal guard of General Etienne Mbura Matondi, the leader of the MAC, together with his friend Gloire, of the same age,. His job has only one rule: he must give his life to protect him.
Now Rodrigue's life happens two steps behind that rough man, with piercing eyes and calloused hands. General Mbura is a tough guy. He has a wide nose, thick lips, and the watery gaze of someone who too often smears battle scars with cheap liquor. He uses mistrust as a form of survival. During eight months of talks to arrange our visit to his camp, in an unknown part of the jungle, he changed last-‐minute the dates of the trip up to four times. The meeting place, away from any road or path where a motor vehicle could reach, was never precise. He barely slipped the name of a neighbouring village, a direction to walk through the canopy of the forest and the promise that his men would find us first. He kept his word.
General Mbura is also a strict man. At Ngenge village, everyone praises his courage in battle, his ability to lead around 3,000 men from the region, and deny, perhaps less emphatically, that in exchange for his protection, they are forced to work in a nearby gold mine owned by the General. Mbura claims that thanks to him the local population can live in peace, but the military way he refers to his soldiers does not match reality. Mbura’s army is not an ordinary one. His subordinates form a sort of disorganized militia, at times pathetic, where they all proclaim themselves captains, colonels or lieutenants, they all shout out to any civilian they stumble upon, and no one knows how to follow even a simple military instruction. There is neither discipline nor uniform: Soldiers wear torn T-‐ shirts, leaky pants, and rotten sandals or slippers. A ridiculous militia too: one of its captains wears a wolf-‐shaped hat with a Dalinian moustache on the tip of its nose.
General Mbura is also a smart guy. He immediately knew how to get something valuable from Rodrigue and Gloire’s shattered innocence. Two weapons of war. He adopted them.
— Now I am his father. But I haven't recruited them, you know? It was anger. Do you see them? They are angry. If an NGO comes looking for them, there would be no problem; I have no interest in them being here. I help them because I work with them.
When the general speaks, Rodrigue fixes his eyes on nothing, as if he is not listening. He does not even react when the rebel chief assures that the other adults treat the children of the militia well and they constitute a big family. He also ignores the insults or the attacks that, after each night of alcohol and excesses, the other soldiers unload against the minors. Rodrigue does not even blink when General Mbura forgets the exhausting and absurd military training, in which they must imitate the noise of the shots in order to save bullets, or his refusal to let his two minor bodyguards go to school.
In four years, Rodrigue has had time to learn that submission is his personal shortcut to survival. So, he follows orders. Whatever. On the day marked for our first meeting, we waited for the General in a wooden house on top of a hill. He appeared late at night, drunk, tottery, and escorted by the two children,. On the table, as a compliment, we had placed several bottles of soda. Mbura smiled gratefully and reached for a mango juice. Before drinking he darkened his gaze and abruptly ordered Rodrigue to try it first.
—Just in case you try to poison me.
Rodrigue obeyed without looking up and sipped from the bottle, barely a sip.
The DRC lives in a suspended war seventeen years after the official end (Pretoria Agreement, 2002) of a civil conflict that shattered its guts. It is a latent, low intensity war, where nobody fights for victory but to maintain a militarized, almost predatory economy that needs blood to continue operating. A cheap and grotesque war, with second-‐hand weapons and soldiers in flip-‐flops ready to kill each other for a few coins, and where no one fights for ideals but for a piece of the cake. A war where rebel groups fight each other and terrorize the civilian population to control territories and loot the country's mineral wealth. A profitable war that confirms a maxim: failed states are the paradise of global neoliberalism. A war where child soldiers such as Rodrigue are mere links in an international chain of plunder, in which mining or technology multinationals, arms dealers or unscrupulous businessmen from Moscow, Zurich, Kigali, Washington or Beijing are enriched by the benefits coming from coltan, gold or cobalt stained with the blood of others.
It is a war of hollow and dangerous hopes. Because in Eastern DRC, where education is destroyed and impunity and unemployment are the norm, endless war does not only bring economic benefits; it also gives meaning to broken lives.
One night, Rodrigue approached his mother's hut to spend time with her. They hardly spoke, but the boy sat beside her, in silence, and watched her cooking herbs and roots in a metal pot. She replied with furtive glances at her son —the third of her six children alive— and asked him to leave the gun at the door.
- When I see him with weapons, I go into a I tell him that he is still too young to be a soldier. But he says, "We have nothing."
Rodrigue became a child soldier for those three words. "We have nothing". To be able to stop saying them. Because for children like Rodrigue, with no future or exit, the promise of fidelity to a rebel group is not only the most feasible way of staying alive; the kaláshnikov brings something more important: an identity and a vital objective. On the day his father was killed, Rodrigue became just an orphan. Now he had something: an AK-‐47 and all the hate in the world.
That resentment, in addition, saved the fear of him. The first time he entered combat, Rodrigue killed a man in the bushes, and he did not even feel grief or fear. He couldn't feel a thing.
- When I went to war, I was not afraid because I had a target. I came back safe and It was a long fight. That first time I only felt hate There was no fear in my heart.
It is not a secret. Child soldiers are the best assassins: they are cheap, subject to manipulation, and easy to replace when, blinded by hatred or unconsciousness, they allow themselves to be killed in the first line of fire. The international weapons industry knows it. That is why it manufactures small arms and light weapons that fit better kids short arms . Manufacturers invest millions of dollars in designing these deadly weapons that allow children to become efficient participants in the battlefield.
The business is huge: one in every five firearms sold in the world belongs to the Kaláshnikov family . According to the Small Arms Survey research center, most sales are for the most manageable model, the AK-‐47. more than seventy million of this assault rifle have been produced Since it was designed seventy years ago,.
The gears of this industry will not stop shortly. Based on UN reports, the number of child soldiers almost doubled in the last five years and reached 30,000 cases that could be verified. However, the international bodysuspects that the real number is much higher. They already know who is behind these figures. According to their latest report on childhood and armed conflict, at least 56 armed groups and 7 state armed forces use children in their ranks. They also know where they are. In the past three years, more than 17,000 minors have been released from rebel groups in the DRC.
Forgiveness and mercy
Heritier Jackson was one of those released child soldiers. he fought side by side with General Mbura and the rest of the MAC guerrilla from the age of eleven till he was fiftteen. He participated in their massacres until one day when he said enough and decided to flee. One night, He turned himself in at a UN mission base in the DRC asking for protection and presenting ten cartridges he had stolen the night before as proof of being a child soldier. They brought him by helicopter to the city of Goma, where he lives today with his aunt. At first, the woman feared him, but now she is fine with him around. Heritier has just turned
seventeen and is shy. He does not look like a boy trained to kill. He shakes hands gently, smiles when jokes are cracked, and lowers his voice when he talks about his life as a child soldier. Even now, more than two years after his desertion, he still fears the militia will track him down.
Heritier remembers the endless workouts from his days in the jungle, the cold, the hunger and the beatings. Also, the hatre. His child soldier story also begins with death. A rebel group —he does not even remember which one— attacked his village, killing and raping dozens of people. Heritier lost his older brother, his idol, and his cousin. So, he enlisted.
After a few weeks, just eleven years old, Heritier became a murderer. It was during their first combat. Christmas Day.
- We were ambushed and the fight Gunshots were heard everywhere. That day I saw many friends dying. Too many. I picked up the gun and saw someone moving through the vegetation. I shot. He was a kid.
As he finishes recounting how he killed for the first time, Heritier lifts his pant leg as if to explain that he was injured in Saturday's game and shows a scar.
- They also shot me.
When recalling his past, Heritier recounts the harshness and ill treatment, but he also conveys a certain pride of camaraderie and even a level of gratitude to General Mbura. He remembers the day that, during a combat, they were about to take him prisoner and his boss saved him.
- He fired many cartridges for me. They ran
Twice a week Heritier attends capoeira classes as part of his reintegration plan. The
dance-‐fight of Brazilian roots allows him to release tension, socialize and have fun without the need for physical contact. It is important that there is not such. He still has uncontrollable outbursts of anger. In other sports, such as soccer, a kick or a push could suddenly make him want to kill his opponent. Heritier says that he no longer feels hate, only fear. He is afraid of not finding a job and having to return to the jungle to be a soldier. He also feels a huge emptiness. When this happens, he approaches the shore of Lake Kivu to look at the horizon, empty his mind and stop thinking.
- I wasted I regret having lost my childhood there. For what? To kill the enemies that killed my brother? During that time in the rebel group they taught me to shoot, to kill. That's it.
In front of the swing of the lake, sitting on some black stones on the shore, Heritier remains silent for long. Suddenly, he spits out words as if they came from the depths of his soul. A torrent of inconsolable pain where tears are not even needed. As if, at that precise moment, the murderer and the victim of his past were merging into the same outcryfor forgiveness and mercy.
- I regret not going to I regret the war, having almost died, having killed. I don't regret killing the FDLR, but I do regret killing my brothers, my people. I regret having done things that I didn't know I would be able to do.
Days before, Rodrigue had leaned his rifle against a tree to chat about Messi and how he longed for childhood games with friends. He explained that in the rebel group he was no longer allowed to play. Sheltered by the lushness of the jungle, he wished out loud.
- In the future I would like to live in a big city, where you know that nobody will come to attack you at
Before leaving the shore of Lake Kivu and returning home, Heritier also crossed his fingers about his future. He chose other words, but he said exactly the same.
- I don't know what the future will be, but I feel good here in the city, where no shots are