By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Pope Benedict XVI used the occasion of “The World Day of Missionary Childhood,” which is celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany, to speak out against the deplorable surge of child kidnappings in the Democratic Republic of Congo that have seen scores of children stolen from their homes and forced to become child soldiers.
“I would like to draw particular attention to the scores of babies and children who, in recent months including the Christmas period, in the eastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, have been kidnapped by armed bands who have attacked villages causing many victims and wounded,” the Pope said during a Jan. 6 Angelus address.
“I appeal to the perpetrators of these inhuman brutalities to restore the children to their families and to a future of security and development, to which they have the right alongside those dear peoples.”
The Congo has been embroiled in a decades long civil war, a conflict that has a terrible history of targeting children. According to Save the Children, an international aid group, boys are forced to fight and girls are taken as ‘wives’ by soldiers. Thousands of children of all ages have fallen victim to these abuses.
“There has been an explosion in the number of children being recruited since the latest violence began and the attacks on schoolchildren are a disturbing development,” said Ishbel Matheson, Save the Children spokesperson in Eastern Congo. “One child told me that they are scared to go back to school for fear of being attacked. For these children, getting an education is their only hope for the future. If they can’t go to school they lose that hope.”
Kidnappings are a recurring nightmare, Matheson said. “Children who are forced into armed conflict suffer terrible physical and emotional damage. They are traumatised by being separated from their families and may witness executions, beatings and torture. Many young girls now have babies.”
One child soldier who managed to escape told Save the Children spokeswoman Sarah Jacobs about the horrors he experienced.
“I spent some time with a 15-year-old boy who had just escaped, so he had run for two days, no water, no food, fearing death to escape a militia group,” Jacobs told the BBC.
“Listening to his tales – he had been forcibly taken; he had been fighting on the front line; his eyes were damaged from the gunpowder. He had been forced to kill, at point blank range, four children in his own militia group, so essentially his friends, because they were being punished; but all he talked about was wanting desperately to get back to his family.”
The Pope bemoaned this tragic situation, saying it is even more deplorable because 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention is “a commitment the international community is called to renew in order to defend, safeguard and promote infancy all over the world,” he said.
“My special thoughts, then, go out to all children, who are the richness and blessing of the world, and especially to the many who are denied a peaceful childhood.”
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