The abduction of children by militias which then force them to work as soldiers, porters and sex slaves has been a long-term and widespread problem in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
But in the past few months, fighting between the DRC army and Rwandan Hutu rebels and other militias has intensified, deepening the crisis for the country’s youth.
Aid agencies describe the present situation as “catastrophic”, warning that child recruitment is on the rise.
Reporting from Goma in the eastern DRC, Mohammed Adow has found that the children are being put through terrifying ordeals; they are trained to kill almost as soon as they are recruited.
One tactic favoured by the militias is to force the child to kill a member of his own family.
Dede Amanor Wilks, Action Aid’s international director for West and Central Africa, has spent time talking to child soldiers in the DRC.
She told Al Jazeera that even if a child soldier manages to escape or is rescued, their problems do not end there. They continue to be seen as “evil doers”.
“Some of these young people say, because they are discriminated against in society, they have no choice but to go back to those rebel groups and find a place there,” Wilks says.
“The danger is that people who have suffered abuse sometimes become the abusers themselves. That’s why the issue of reintegration is so important.
“All societal norms have been broken down here. Rape and the recruitment of child soldiers has almost become a normal fact of life.”
In a 2006 report, the UN children’s agency, Unicef, listed DRC at the top of a list of countries where armed forces and militia fighters use children as soldiers.
It estimated that as many as 30,000 children may be fighting or living with armed groups.
An estimated 30 to 40 per cent of that number are girls, the report said.
Meanwhile, the US-based Human Rights Watch organisation, has said children are currently recruited and used in armed conflict in at least 15 countries and territories.
In the DRC, at least five parties in that country’s armed conflict are known to use child soldiers, Human Rights Watch said in a report earlier this year.
It listed the Congolese army (FARDC), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, pro-government Mai Mai groups, and the Lord’s Resistance Army.