Congo child soldiers brainwashed into battle using voodoo

There are 20,000 child soldiers in the Congo.

On the teenage girl’s shin are ugly bullet scars – a chilling reminder of the horrors of war and the terrifying death of her father.

Dorcas Kabongo, 16, is one of 20,000 child soldiers – many of them girls –snatched from their families by rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil conflict and forced to go into battle against government troops.

And they are armed with nothing but broomsticks and “magic skirts” as weapons against their opponents’ Kalashnikovs.

Meals of red ants and cocktails of their enemy’s blood give them courage.

They are trapped in the middle of the heartbreaking Congo crisis, which has forced 1.4million people from their homes and 400,000 kids to the brink of starvation.

The situation is now so desperate the UN declared a “Level 3” response was needed. That puts it on a par with humanitarian disasters that have consumed Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

They wave sticks at soldiers and lift their skirts to "catch bullets" and distract their enemies

But the sickening actions of the Congo’s militia forces against its country’s children, brainwashing them into battle with voodoo, would be beyond the pale even in those war-torn hells.

Dorcas is one of more than a thousand bewildered former child soldiers Unicef is now helping here, youngsters who have survived battles that claimed the lives of so many of their friends.

And her story of the day the rebel militia descended on her village is horrific. “Almost 30 men with guns and machetes came and took us from our home in Nganza,” she told me.

“We were marched with our hands bound behind our backs for two hours. They were demanding that we join the militia but we refused.

“When we got to the camp they cut my father’s head off with a machete. I saw his corpse.

"Then they made me do initiations. I drank ground tree bark and dust to make my skin bulletproof. I mixed red ants with alcohol to make me fast to reach the enemy quickly.

“I went into battle and I was shot. A militia member saved me. They put potion on my wounds and they healed.

“I couldn’t fight after that. I just helped cook. Then we were attacked by President Joseph Kabila’s army, and I fled into the bush.” Dorcas was one of the lucky ones – and lived to return to her village.

The children are told the broomsticks are magic and can protect them from enemy fire.

For decades, large swathes of the eastern Congo have been a war zone. Now in the Kasai province – a rebel stronghold the size of Germany –
thousands of children are still being enlisted to join armed militia groups.

The Kasia conflict was sparked by the 2016 murder of Kamwina Nsapu, a rebel tribal chief who had called for an uprising against the state. His followers created the Kamuina Nsapa militia in his honour and have waged war ever since.

Around 1.4 million people have been forced from their homes and the region’s 20 million people face famine after missing several planting seasons. All this in a country rich in resources of gold, cobalt and diamonds.

Unicef aid workers say schools and health centres have been destroyed and as many as 400,000 children are on the brink of starvation.

Estimates claim as many as 60 per cent of militia recruits are children either lured in or raped, beaten and made to watch their parents’ executions before being forced to enlist.

Their brainwashing militia “baptism rituals” include drinking the enemy’s blood or cocktails spiked with body parts to give them “magical powers”.

Over the past 12 months Unicef has rescued 1,712 children who fled rebel groups in Kasai – including 481 girls.

Worker Evariste Nkayenemuine said he had rescued one child who was only six.

Yamam Tshiela, 16, fled her captors after being forced to join at 14. She still believes the mystic lies the rebels told as they sent her into battle as cannon fodder.

The children are fed meals of red ants and cocktails of their enemy’s blood.

She said: “We always went out first. We had a brush we waved and it would stop bullets.

“And we had a skirt that would collect bullets and fire them back. I killed many men this way. I knew the powers would protect me.”

Yamam was abducted after her parents and two brothers were slaughtered in their home by 20 machete wielding rebels. “They told me I had to join them or they would kill me too.”

She said her captors forced her to drink alcohol laced with ground tree bark, telling her it would make her immortal.

They told her the magic skirt was short to “distract” the enemy.

Even now – months after fleeing her captors – she is still convinced her skirt helped kill many men.

But Gisele Badianga, 15 when she joined the militia, now knows better after psychological care from Unicef.

She said: “I fought in three battles and watched many friends die. I left and now I know I was lied to. I know I could not fire bullets from my skirt.”

UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described the Kasai region as a “landscape of horror” earlier this year as more than 80 mass graves were found.

But at least for survivors like Dorcas, Yamam and Badianga, Unicef has ended the nightmare.