John Kikandi in the care of the Masisi rescue centre, supported by WFP
John and Rafiki were only 15 when they were enlisted by armed gangs in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. John became a body guard and Rafiki was put in charge of transporting ammunition. Today, they are both at a WFP-supported centre in the town of Masisi, and have only one thing on their minds: resuming their normal lives.
For these young people – who during long months of armed service were often beaten and poorly fed - the daily meals provided at the centre by the World Food Programme (WFP) are a vital part of their return to civilian life.
John Kikandi volunteered to join an armed group. Penniless, he had just stopped going to school and felt rejected by his classmates, “I thought that I would get admiration and money in an armed group, and also a place to stay”, says John (16). But things did not turn out as he had hoped.
"One goal : to find food"
“We were told things like we were going to take power but I quickly understood that we were only fighting for one goal: to find food. We used to steal food or we used to threaten villagers to give us some. But even at home we ate better than we did there!” John says he never fired directly at anyone with the Chinese rifle that had been issued to him.
When the group was incorporated into the national army, he was too young to be a soldier. It was the same for Rafiki. By the time, he arrived at the centre to be reunited with his family, they had had no news from him in eight months.
The last time his parents saw him, he was going out with friends to pick up books being offered free by a foreign embassy. It was September 2009. On the road, they fell into an ambush; seven of them were abducted by armed men.
Receiving WFP support
“The first weeks were a nightmare”, he says. “They asked us to dig a big hole in the ground, closed above by tarpaulins and branches. We had to enter it by another smaller hole, like a tunnel. There were about 10 of us in there. As there was water in the hole, we couldn’t lie down, we used to sleep standing against the wall. The first three days, we stayed there all day without eating, then we were finally allowed to go out a little. We ate and then we were beaten up - every day, twenty lashes”.
This lasted three weeks before they were finally allowed to go out and were given tasks of transporting ammunition, collecting firewood and stealing food. The Masisi transition centre currently hosts 74 children aged 10 to 17 years who spend time there before returning to their families. They are fed, as well as given healthcare, counseling and some training. Some go back to school, others learn how to cultivate food.
The centre, managed by the NGO CARITAS, has been receiving food from WFP since opening in 2004. Without this support, it would be almost impossible for the centre to feed the young inmates.
Today, John and Rafiki are on their way to becoming two normal adolescent boys. They will soon be reunited with their families and want to return to school. “I want to be a child again, not a soldier”, says Rafiki. “I know it won’t be easy but it can’t be worse than in those armed groups”.