Kizito Maheshe was one of the thousands of children who made up the bulk of Laurent Kabila’s Congolese fighters.1 When the war began, he was sixteen years old and lived in the Panzi neighborhood of Bukavu, a muddy suburb of bumpy streets and loud bars. Like most of his friends, he had dropped out of high school because his father couldn’t afford the five-dollar monthly fee. In any case, he didn’t see the point in studying. In 1996, Bukavu was a town of 300,000 people with only a few thousand jobs that required a high school diploma. If you were lucky, you could get a job in either the nonprofit sector, which worked mainly in the refugee camps and had the best-paying jobs; the private sector, including the beer factory and the quinine plant, where antimalarial medicine was produced; or the civil service, perhaps the largest employer but where workers relied on bribes and embezzlement to make a decent living.

Kizito had listlessly followed his friends’ path, without much hope for a decent future. After he dropped out of school at sixteen, he wandered around town, looking for work but mostly just hanging out with friends at soccer games, in neighborhood bars, and at church. He had six siblings at home, and his father, a low-level accountant, was deep in debt. The power company had cut their electricity because of nonpayment, and the pipes in their neighborhood had burst, so he helped his sisters and mother carry jerry cans of water for cooking and washing several hundred yards from the pump to his house.

When the AFDL rebellion arrived in Bukavu in October 1996, Kizito hid at home like everyone else. Through their windows and cracked doors they saw Mobutu’s soldiers stripping off their uniforms in the streets and running for the hills. “For us, soldiers had been like gods. They had all the power; they were terrible,” he told me. “When we saw them running like that, we were amazed.”

A week after the battle for Bukavu, Laurent Kabila arrived in town. Over the radio, the soldiers called the population to the post office, a run-down, fourstory, yellow building that filled up a whole block in the city center. Thousands of people turned out to see Kabila, a man most had only heard vague rumors about. After a long wait, he stepped up to the podium, dressed in his signature safari suit and sandals, and spoke in a mixture of Tanzanian-accented Swahili and French. Kizito remembered him as fat, with a big smile and sweat pouring down his neck. One of his bodyguards, a Rwandan, carried a white towel to wipe off the perspiration.

He spoke about the need to get rid of Mobutu and to allow the Congolese people to benefit from the riches that lay beneath the soil. Then he spoke to the question that was on everyone’s mind: Was this a foreign invasion or a Congolese rebellion?

“If you see me here with our Rwandan allies,” he told the crowd, “it’s because they agreed to help us overthrow Mobutu.” His podium was being guarded by a mixture of Tutsi and other soldiers, all well-armed and wearing Wellington boots. “But now we have a chance to build our own army. Give me your children and your youths! Give us 100,000 soldiers so we can overthrow Mobutu!”

Anselme Masasu, a twenty-four-year-old half-Tutsi from Bukavu, was in charge of mobilization and was popular among the youth. New recruits would get a hundred dollars a month to overthrow Mobutu. A hundred dollars a month! Kizito remembered. That was five times the monthly rent for their house. A few months with that salary and you could even buy a decent dowry and get married. Masasu began buying off youth leaders to mobilize young men and bring them to recruitment centers. He approached Boy Scout leaders, karate instructors, and schoolteachers, giving them money if they agreed to help enlist youths in the rebellion. Hundreds of street children, unemployed youths, and pupils heeded Kabila’s call.

“It was obvious for me,” Kizito told me. “I had no future in Bukavu. They were offering me a future.”

Like most youths and children who joined the AFDL, he didn’t tell his parents. He and a group of friends went to Hotel Lolango, a run-down building close to the post office where the rebels had set up a recruitment office. A soldier used a naked razor blade to shave AB or C into the recruits’ heads to mark which brigade they would join. Kizito was put into the B group; his scalp burned from the scrapings. He handed over all of his belongings—a watch, a few Nouveau Zaire banknotes, and his ID—to a recruitment officer for safekeeping and got into a waiting truck. “It was like a dream,” he remembered. “I was so excited.”


The AFDL’s first training camp was in Kidote, a hamlet in the hills overlooking the Rusizi plain, just a few miles away from the Lemera hospital where the rebels had carried out the first massacre of the war. In March 2007, I convinced Kizito to take a day off from his job as a driver for a local development organization and take me to the place where he had been trained.

He hadn’t been back since he had finished boot camp there. As we crossed the ridge and the parish came into view, he rolled down the car window and looked around in a daze. “This whole hill was full of sentries,” he said, reliving the moment of his first arrival there. “You wouldn’t have been able to approach—they kept the whole area blocked off.”

Kidote wasn’t even a village. A cluster of school buildings and an abandoned church, all with rusted, corrugated-iron roofs, were set into hills dotted with banana groves and eucalyptus trees. The buildings were surrounded by a flat area, perhaps the size of four football fields, with shoulder-high, dense elephant grass. There were no more than a dozen huts and no sign of movement in the school buildings. “We cut down all that grass. They gave us machetes, and we spent the first week just clearing the pitch. This whole plain was a training ground,” he said. “The hills behind the school were all full of bivouacs made out of banana leaves that we slept in.”

We parked the car and walked down to the church. It had been abandoned for a decade. Even the benches had been pillaged, probably for firewood. One of its walls had been sprayed repeatedly with bullets. Did they execute people here? I asked Kizito. “No,” he said; he didn’t think so. He pointed at a lone eucalyptus sapling in the middle of the meadow to our left. “It was down there.”


After being recruited, Kizito’s initial excitement waned quickly. The living conditions were harsh. The new recruits slept in the open for a week until they were given tarps with UN logos—they had been taken from the dismantled refugee camps—to build small lean-tos they could crawl into and sleep. They weren’t given uniforms, and the heavy labor tore their clothes. After several weeks, fleas infested the camp, and many soldiers preferred to burn their clothes than to stay awake at night, itching. “We would throw our rags into the fire and listen to the fleas pop,” Kizito said, smiling and imitating the popping sound. Kidote is around 6,000 feet high, and even huddling together in their tiny huts at night, the youths froze.

There were over 2,000 recruits in Kizito’s training camp. They were the first graduating class, he remembered proudly, almost all under twenty-five, with some as young as twelve. “Some kids were shorter than their guns,” he recalled, laughing. They came from different social and ethnic backgrounds but were mostly poor, unemployed, and uneducated. Morale, however, was high at the beginning. “They told us that we would finish the training and get money and have beautiful girls,” Kizito remembered, laughing. “What did we know about beautiful girls? We were very young.”

Their diet consisted almost solely of vungure, a tasteless mix of cornmeal and beans that often didn’t have any oil or salt. Soldiers cooked the mixture over firewood in large steel vats that had been used for boiling clothes at the nearby hospital. The food made their stomachs knot up; many suffered from diarrhea. They ate once a day, at 11 o’clock, placing banana leaves in holes in the ground to use as plates. In the evening, they were given some tea with a little bit of sugar.

The commander of the camp was a tall, light-skinned Rwandan officer called Afande Robert,2 who spoke accented Swahili mixed with English. He was quiet but ruthless and feared by the recruits. They called him Mungu (“God”). After clearing the bush for the camp, Robert began the “introduction.” Kizito recalled, “If you lived through that, it was by God’s will.”

The introduction was a hazing ceremony that consisted of three days of grueling exercises on the training pitch. The recruits, or bakurutu in the local slang, were divided into groups of twenty-five and surrounded by circles of Tutsi soldiers with long canes. Robert would then yell out “Roll around!” or “Snake forward!” and the soldiers would descend on them and begin beating them. Viringita was one of the worst exercises. Next to the pitch was a waist-deep swamp, thick with reeds. The recruits were ordered to get into the water and do somersaults as fast as they could as the soldiers beat them and insulted them. Kizito saw youths have their eyes poked out and noses broken; some were knocked unconscious by the thrashing.

Parts of the hazing were bizarre. In one exercise, called “drinking beer,” recruits would stand on one leg and put one arm under the other leg and their finger in their mouth. “Maintain position for ten minutes,” the order would come. In another exercise, they were forced to roll around on the ground as fast as they could for several minutes, after which their squad commander would yell, “Run!” and they would spurt off vertiginously in all directions, banging into each other. In another exercise, a commander would tell a group of sixty recruits to fetch a stick he threw in the middle of the pitch. “The first to get it doesn’t get beaten!”

If you couldn’t keep up with the strict regimen, you were punished. After committing a minor infraction, Kizito was told to step in front of his fellow recruits and dig a small hole in the pitch. “‘This is your vagina,’ the commander said. ‘Take out your dick and fuck it!’” Kizito told me, blushing and looking down. In front of all of his fellow recruits, he was forced to hump the hole until he ejaculated. “In front of all those people, it was almost impossible,” he muttered. At sixteen, he was still a virgin.

He once made the mistake of reporting sick. At the health center, he told the medic he had a headache, joining a long line of sullen soldiers with various ailments. The medic nodded and turned to a soldier, who then ran at them, beating them over the head with his cane. The medic laughed as they scattered into the bushes. “You aren’t sick! See—you can still run!”


After the three-day induction course, Afande Robert addressed his recruits on the pitch. He was wearing a sweatsuit and sneakers and was holding a cane. Over a thousand soldiers stood in silent formation in front of him. “Bakurutu, the army is your family now. The army can be good, but you need to know that you can die at any moment. Have you ever seen people die? No?” He waved at one of his officers. “How many prisoners do we have in jail? Bring me six.”

The officers brought out six weak and dirty prisoners. They were recruits like the rest of them who had been captured trying to desert the camp. Robert ordered his men to blindfold one and tie him to a eucalyptus tree on the edge of the clearing. They lined up in a “firing squad”—Kizito struggled with the English word he had obviously heard more than once in the army—and riddled the prisoner with bullets.

“Good!” Robert barked. “Now I will show you precision marksmanship!”

They brought out the next blindfolded prisoner and tied him to the same tree. Suku, a Rwandan officer known for being an expert shot, stepped forward and counted twenty-five paces from the tree. He pulled a modern-looking pistol from his holster, took aim, and shot the prisoner between his eyes.

“Good!” Robert then gave orders for four officers to pin the next prisoner down by his hands and legs. Another officer took out a hunting knife, pinned his chest to the ground with his knee, and slit his throat—“ like a goat,” Kizito remembered. The officer completely severed the head from the body, then brought it to the recruits, who were told to pass the bloody object around. “When I held the head, I could still feel his muscles twitching,” Kizito said.

“Who is a good kurutu and thinks he can kill, too?” Robert cried out. A few brave soldiers put their hands up, eager to please. He called them forward and gave them knives. They slit the throats of the last three prisoners as their peers watched. The induction was over. From now on, Robert announced, they would be called soldiers, not kurutu.


The training settled into a kind of exhausting normalcy. Kizito spent four months at Kidote, although he says it felt like a whole year. Every morning, they would rise at 4 o’clock and go jogging for about six miles, singing songs as they went. At 6 o’clock, they would begin the military drills back at the camp. They would practice deploying in offensive formations, laying ambushes and crawling up hills. “Our commander would mount a machine gun in the ground behind us and shoot over our heads as we snaked up the hills. If you raised your head a bit, you were dead.”

At 11 o’clock, the soldiers would come back to camp and eat their one meal of the day before heading back into the hills for more military drills. At 4 o’clock, they returned to learn how to take apart and reassemble guns, as well as to learn military tactics. In the evening, the officers gave them time to socialize and tried to teach them about the history and goals of their struggle—they called this utamaduni , or culture. At around 9 o’clock, most of the soldiers retired to their tents, exhausted, to sleep. In their newly learned military slang, this was kuvunja mbavu, “breaking your ribs.” At night, Kizito would hear kids in other tents sobbing or reading the Bible in whispers.

The AFDL made an effort to instill their revolutionary doctrine in the recruits. The Rwandan and Ugandan officers who led the rebellion all started off as members of leftist insurgencies in East Africa. Knowledge of Marx, Mao, and Fanon had been de rigueur for their leaders, and these teachings filtered down to the lowest level. Kizito remembered them asking questions the recruits didn’t understand:“‘Who are you?’ ‘What do you believe in?’ ‘Why does a soldier fight?’ It was the first time we had thought about such things.” The teachers explained to them how Mobutu had ruined the country, how he had made people corrupt and tribalist. Higher-ranking officers and political cadres received more nuanced lectures, often in Kigali or Goma, about dialectical materialism and planned economies.

All recruits received a copy of Kabila’s Marxist-inspired pamphlet, Seven Mistakes of the Revolution, which explained why the 1964 rebellion had failed. The pamphlet was more or less unchanged from its original 1967 version.

First mistake—During the first revolution, we did not have precise political education....

Third mistake—We waged a war without goal or sense, without knowing why we were fighting and who our real enemy was. We rushed to seize large towns and forgot to first take small villages and to work with peasants and workers....

Fifth mistake—Due to lack of discipline and collaboration, we fought over ranks and fame.... Also everybody wanted to be in charge and to get positions for himself and his relatives.

Given the nature of the AFDL, some of the points seemed out of place. The second mistake was: “We relied too much on external support and advice.” To the recruits, who were being trained by foreigners, the pamphlet was more of a diagnosis of the current rebellion’s faults than a critique of the past. “It was Rwandans teaching us how to be patriotic, telling us to sacrifice ourselves for our country,” Kizito reflected, shaking his head. “It was weird.”

Twelve years later, Kizito seemed to have remembered little of the ideological training. The reason for their struggle was apparent for him and all other recruits: Mobutu needed to go.

Despite the misery, the training did produce camaraderie. Some of the recruits had not even reached puberty, and for many of them the army did indeed become their family. Back in Bukavu, we gathered one evening at Kizito’s uncle’s house, along with another former child soldier who had been at Kidote after Kizito. Both of them shook their heads and sucked their teeth when they remembered the extreme brutality and pain of boot camp. However, when I asked them to sing AFDL songs for me, smiles began to warm their faces, and they tentatively started to clap.

Jua limechomoka, wajeshi weee

The sun is coming out, oh soldiers

Kimbia muchaka

Go and run

Askari eee vita ni yeye

A soldier’s work is war

Anasonga corporal, sergeant, platoon commander

He moves from corporal, to sergeant, then platoon commander

Anavaa kombati, boti, kibuyu ya maji

He wears a uniform, boots, and a water flask

Their favorite one appeared to be:


They are strong

Vijana walihamia msituni

The youths have moved into the jungle

Watatu wakufe

Even if three die

Wanne wa pone, waliobaki watajenga nchi

Four will remain to build our country




After four months of training, a column of trucks pulled into camp, each marked with the name of a different town. Afande Robert called the soldiers together for one last assembly, then told them they were going to fight the enemy. The soldiers lined up in front of the trucks, where each was given an AK-47. They were told to load the gun, fire in the air, and jump into the truck. Kizito climbed in a vehicle with “Bukavu” written on the side. All he had was his gun and an extra clip of ammunition. It was March 1997; Kisangani, the third largest city in the country, had just fallen to the rebellion.

In town, the soldiers arrived in time for the inauguration of the new governor in the courtyard of the large Jesuit school, Alfajiri College. They paraded in front of the crowd. “It was like coming back from another planet,” Kizito said, remembering seeing many of his friends and relatives again for the first time in four months. After the ceremony, they feasted on pots of beef stew, rice, and potatoes. It was the first time they had had meat in months. Before he gave them leave for the weekend, Kabila gave another speech, telling the soldiers that they were about to taste the fruits of their long training, that they would now be able to help liberate their country. Finally, he told them to shoot in the air three times before they entered their houses to scare away evil spirits. “The old man had funny ideas sometimes,” Kizito remembered. “He was superstitious—‘Don’t wear flip-flops at roadblocks.’ ‘Don’t ride a bicycle if you have a gun.’” That night, people in Bukavu thought another war had broken out. An hour after the soldiers left the schoolyard, shooting broke out all through town as the recruits chased away evil spirits.


Kizito’s description of induction was grisly but confirmed much of what other AFDL recruits reported of their experiences in Kidote and other training camps. The rebellion needed recruits fast. The harsh basic training was intended to instill discipline and weed out those physically too weak for the upcoming war. It was as though the Rwandan officers wanted to beat out the corruption, idleness, and selfishness that had become, in Mobutu’s own words, le mal zairois. Like Kizito, many of the recruits who went through this training were under eighteen years old—children according to international conventions. Diplomats estimated that 10,000 child soldiers (kadogo in Swahili) participated in the AFDL rebellion.3 The rationale for child recruitment was simple: Many commanders consider that children make better, more loyal, and fearless soldiers. One commander of a local Mai-Mai militia told me: “You never know who you can trust. At least with the kadogo, you know they will never betray you.”4 Given the lack of discipline, the amount of infighting, and the regular infiltrations by their enemies, it was understandable that commanders wanted to have an inner security buffer of people they could trust.

For the most part, the kind of combat that soldiers engaged in was guerrilla warfare, involving risky ambushes and close-quarter fighting with the enemy. Soldiers did not have protective gear, and artillery was in scant supply. If you wanted to hit the enemy, you needed to be close enough to be effective with an AK-47—within two hundred meters of the target. Children were often the only soldiers who had the guts to engage in many of the operations, who actually obeyed orders, and whose sense of danger was not as well developed as that of older soldiers. The use of children as vanguard special forces meant also that they made up a disproportionate number of fatalities on the battlefield. A Mobutu commander who had organized the defense of the town of Kindu told me:“The first time I saw the AFDL troops, I thought we were fighting against an army of children! Through my binoculars I saw hundreds of kids in uniforms racing through bush, some carrying grenade launchers bigger than them.”5

According to Kizito and other kadogo I interviewed, they often formed the first line of defense or offense. One such interviewee told me that in the battle for Kenge, in the west of the country, he had looked around to see dozens of his fellow kadogo, small children in oversized uniforms, sprawled dead on the battlefield. 6 No one has conducted a survey of battlefield casualties during the war, but it is safe to assume that thousands of child soldiers died during the Congo wars.

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