By Mehdi Meddeb
The recruitment and use of children in armed forces is a violation of international law, and children who are recruited and forced to fight and kill suffer profound physical and psychological damage. Children not Soldiers, launched in 2014 by Leila Zerrougui, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, and UNICEF, is a campaign to make all government armed forces child-free by 2016.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts form, has had a positive impact in helping children demobilized from armed forces to make the transition away from military life and reintegrate with their families and communities.
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, 11 February 2015 – “Aie! Aie! Isso!” Ninja gives the rally cry, and dozens of children rush forward at the instructor’s call. All of them already have their abadá, the white trousers of capoeira players. The boys are between 12 and 17, and their smiles show their enthusiasm.
Twice a week, it’s the same routine: Rafael, the other teacher, plays the berimbau, a traditional Brazilian stringed instrument, and Ninja gathers the roda, or circle. Today, nearly 80 children join hands and begin the warm-up for capoeira, a graceful and athletic form of martial art that also involves percussion and singing.
“They have a flexibility that I envy,” smiles the Mexican teacher. He is convinced of the benefits of capoeira, having used it to help disadvantaged children in Mexico and Costa Rica.
Some of the boys have already mastered the basic moves such as the jinga, cadeira andqueda de quatro. “They have really surprised, having arrived here only a few days ago and have quickly understood,” Ninja says.
Space for play and peace
Before joining this group, the boys had something else in common: They were all once members of an armed group. Following their recent demobilization, they are living temporarily in the Centre for Transit and Orientation operated by CAJED, a Congolese NGO supported by UNICEF that works with disadvantaged children and youth.
“Through capoeira we have created a space for play and peace,” explains Rafael. “We don’t fight anymore. This martial art makes everybody the same. It teaches mutual respect and love. We talk together peacefully.”
“It’s an original method, especially here in the Congo and in the East, where there has never been a capoeira group,” says UNICEF protection officer Inah Kaloga. “We could have used traditional dance, but we wanted to try something to make the kids more curious. We have also seen that newly arrived children integrate more easily into the group, because capoeira breaks down the ethnic and political divisions they inherited from the armed groups.”
“Violence amongst the children has gone down,” says Ninja, who was once a street child himself. “There is more cohesion in the group, and the children learn to deal with stress differently.”
And there is more to capoeira than just physical training. The instructors also emphasize the sport’s values of equality and respect, and the mental focus needed to learn the art form.
Aimé, 17, was freed just a week ago from the armed group he was forced to join more than a year ago. He says he is happy to be here. “Capoeira allows me to clear my mind of the forests. Before, I was in a military mindset,” he says.
His capoeira partner, Dieume, who was demobilized a month and a half ago, agrees: “Capoeira helps me avoid being aggressive, angry and resentful, and it helps me clear my mind.”
“We want to show them that they have a future,” says Rafael. “In capoeira, you have to control your body and listen to the other. It allows them to prepare for reinsertion into the society which awaits them.”
On average, a Congolese child leaving an armed group stays five weeks in the transit centre. It gives each one the time to develop goals. “My dream is to become a capoeira teacher,” says Aimé.
In the past six months, 270 demobilized children, the vast majority boys, have learned capoeira and its values. And it has become an enormous success in Goma, a long way from its roots in Brazil, where it was first developed by African slaves. Rafael and Ninja give capoeira classes in two other locations, open to dozens of children.
Equally important, Ms. Kaloga believes, is the programme’s success in addressing the challenge of reintegrating children who have been dembolized from armed groups.
“We don’t necessarily need more capoeira players, but more skilled human resources to prepare children for reintegration into their families, and to supply the necessary aftercare and psycho-social support,” she says.
Does Capoeira ensure an easier return to their families? “It is too early to tell, but it makes the return less abrupt,” Ms. Kaloga says. “Capoeira allows them to be active; it is a halfway house between what they have experienced in the armed groups and reunification with their families. Through capoeira, they learn that we can absorb the violence and that we can bounce back, returning once more to a normal childhood.”