Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo - When Rukundu was not yet born his Hutu parents fled the genocide in Rwanda to safety in the Democratic Republic of Congo where he was born. His father was a Hutu soldier and remained in Congo to join the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), but his mother returned to Rwanda, leaving behind the boy in his father's care.
When he was 12, Rukundu joined the FDLR following in his father's path. For five years, Rukundu lived in the bush in Masisi Territory in the Northern Kivu province of Congo, alongside the estimated 2,000 FDLR combatants operating here. "We were fighting for survival and for a place to live, we lived in the bush. When they needed me, I fought," he says.
Instead of learning how to read and write, he was taught how to point a rifle, load the ammunition and subsist in the forest among animals and diseases. Rukundo was a child soldier, a "kadogo", Swahili for "little ones".
His only points of reference were his father, weapons and the bush. That is how he grew up - flighting. Even though his father was killed in the fighting, he never wanted to flee or have a different life. "It was my life and there I was," he says. But, earlier this year, Rukundu was captured by the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC).
The teenager was first handed over to the Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration programme (DDR) - a component of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country. From here he was taken to a shelter run by the Support Program for Poverty Reduction (PAMI) in the periphery of Goma.
|Personage Rukundu, 17, used to fight in the ranks of FDLR. For five years, Rukundu lived in the bush in Masisi Territory in the North Kivu province [Flavio Forner/Al Jazeera]|
A new path for child soldiers
Rukundu has been at the shelter for a week. Sitting at a corner in the PAMI centre, the thin boy, with a bowed head and a soft voice, observes the other boys surrounding him. They are all former kadogos and suffered similar trauma. Because he only speaks Kinyarwanda, the language spoken in Rwanda, he has difficulty communicating with the others, so he stays quiet.
Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, around 40 boys from the shelter, ranging in age from eight to 17, come together to play capoeira, a Brazilian martial art resembling an acrobatic dance founded by descendants of African slave communities. Although they are of different ethnicities, communities and languages, they feel united by the chants and acrobatic movements, along with the harmonising sound of the drums and the berimbau - a one-string percussion instrument.
UNICEF, in partnership with the Brazilian Embassy in Kinshasa and some NGOs, provide the project known as "Capoeira pour la Paix" - Capoeira for Peace - for child soldiers who have been subject to extreme violence in order to help them with self-confidence and self-esteem.
A Brazilian capoeira master, Flavio Soares, coordinates the programme. "For us, it is rewarding to know that a child who used to be in an armed group in the DRC decided to drop a Kalashnikov rifle and take up the berimbau as a friend," Soares said.
"Here in Goma, we have seen good results of children who were soldiers in the past, who had committed crimes and, nowadays, they say they want to become capoeira masters." The project has benefited more than four thousand children in Goma, according to Soares. It allows for the creation of a standard for "using cultural activities with children who were traumatised and exposed to intense violence".
Diedonne Mosikikongo Nkoy the instructor, joined UNICEF to be part of this programme in 2014. "These children who come from armed groups are under so much stress. When they start playing capoeira, I can feel the change in their lives," he says.
"The ideals of capoeira teach how to love and [get along]. Without those values, these children would still be combatting. I want to help and bring them back again to their lives and teach them how to live with the others in a community," Nkoy says.
|Diedonne Mosikikongo Nkoy is one of the capoeira instructors. [Flavio Forner/Al Jazeera]|
Finding a new family
Kelvin, another child soldier at the shelter, started to play capoeira five months ago. He was kidnapped from his village, Jardin d'Eden, in Northern Kivu in 2014, at the age of 14 by Nyatura fighters, another Hutu fighter group based in Congo. This group has been accused of violating human rights and forcefully recruiting child soldiers.
According to UNICEF's Sabrina Cajoly, coordinator of the Working Group for the Protection of Children in the DRC, government estimates indicate there were 3,662 children in the country involved with armed groups in 2015. Yet, "in 2016, thanks to the actions of UNICEF and its partners, 3,442 children ... left armed groups in conflict zones, and benefited from transitory care and were able to be reunited with their families."
Kelvin was an orphan, his father had passed away from a sickness, and his mother had abandoned him. Now, he was forced to leave behind his home village to fight in the bush. "Everything was very difficult in the armed group. They beat us the whole day, in the morning, in the afternoon and at night when we did the trainings. I wanted to escape," says Kelvin.
He managed to escape after six months and surrendered at a MONUSCO base.
He is safe now and while he waits to find a new family he plays Capoeira. "I like it because I made friends here. With capoeira, I can be myself. When I play, I feel good, I interact with others."
Like Rukundu, Kelvin was shy and had never heard about capoeira before until he decided to give it a chance and try some movements. "If I can play as well as [the instructors], I would love to have a group to keep practising capoeira. I really wanted to do so many things with capoeira."
Joachim Fikiri, who coordinates PAMI, says capoeira has been very beneficial for the boys. "They arrive traumatised and for this reason, we decided to include it in our pedagogic programme for psychosocial support. Capoeira allows them to forget a little bit what they lived through in the armed groups so these children can change their violent behaviour and get a normal life again."
Soares, the Brazilian capoeira master added that the response to the programme has been very positive, so far, "with great acceptance of the children and their communities".
Last year, the PAMI centre in Goma provided capoeira classes for 500 children. Fikiri dreams of one day expanding this practice to communities in the interior of the region to reach the "different tribes from where most of these children come."
"There is a need to address reconciliation, break ethnic divisions in those areas and create social cohesion. It is in those communities where lies the conflict," Fikiri says.
Rukundu is still too shy to participate. As time passes by, he thinks one day he will try to learn some initial movements. For now, he waits to be reconnected with his family. The only phone number he had from his mother does not work anymore.
|Capoiera helps the child soldiers deal with trauma [Flavio Forner/Al Jazeera]|
The reporting trip to DRC was funded by the Erasmus Mundus Journalism Consortium and the Reporting Right Livelihood 2017 journalism programme