The Congolese military is unlawfully detaining at least 29 children in dire conditions in northwest Democratic Republic of Congo. The authorities allege that the boys, ages 15 to 17, were members of a rebel armed group, and have held them in a military prison in Angenga since apprehending them in eastern Congo in the first half of 2015.
Angenga military prison in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo, where alleged FDLR combatants are being held, including at least 29 children.
Human Rights Watch found during a visit to Angenga prison in December 2015, that neither the boys nor the adult men detained with them have been charged with crimes, or had access to lawyers or their families. Detainees who did not commit any criminal offense should be promptly released. Under international law, countries are obligated to recognize the special situation of children who have been recruited or used in armed conflict. Former child soldiers should be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.
“Congolese authorities should immediately release the children and adults held at Angenga prison who have committed no crime and fairly charge the rest,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Children who were rebel fighters should be rehabilitated, not thrown into prison and held there indefinitely.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 detainees, including 29 children, and several prison officials at Angenga, as well as more than 40 Congolese military and government officials, United Nations officials, humanitarian workers, and others, between December 2015 and March 2016.
Detention conditions at Angenga are dismal, with inadequate food, clean water, and medical care. Children and adults remain together on the prison grounds during the day. The children had been detained in the same cells as the adults until prison officials transferred them to a separate block for sleeping at night in late February 2016.
“To get medicine, you have to wait for a response from God,” one prisoner said.
Between February and June 2015, Congolese security forces apprehended 262 men and boys of Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian nationality in North Kivu and South Kivu, and in the former Katanga province of eastern Congo. Those captured were accused of being members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group, some of whose leaders are believed to have taken part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The majority of FDLR fighters today are unlikely to have played any role in the genocide because they were too young. A considerable number of FDLR fighters are Congolese recruits.
The military transferred the suspected fighters to the city of Goma and flew them to the Angenga military prison, in northwestern Congo’s former Equateur province (currently Mongala province), between May and August 2015. Since December, over 60 additional suspected FDLR fighters have been transferred to Angenga. At least four of the prisoners have died from illnesses since arriving at Angenga. Two others were shot dead on February 26, 2016 outside the prison grounds. Prison authorities allege that the two men had attempted to escape.
Most of those interviewed, including 17 of the children, said they were civilians and had no affiliation with the FDLR. Others said they were former FDLR fighters who had demobilized months or years ago and had reintegrated into civilian life. Several Rwandan Hutu refugees said the authorities arrested them on the pretext that they had to register with national and international refugee agencies in Congo. Some said they were told that they needed to leave a military operational zone for their own safety, but when they arrived at the so-called “safe” village with their families, they were arrested and accused of belonging to the FDLR. Human Rights Watch could not verify individual claims.
“The local authorities came to tell us that we needed to register with the CNR [National Commission for Refugees],” a 16-year-old Rwandan Hutu boy who lived in Fizi, South Kivu province, told Human Rights Watch. “But instead they led us to their military camp. The same day, eight others fell into the same trap, thinking they needed to register.”
Another 16-year-old detainee who had been a child soldier with the FDLR said he had surrendered to the Congolese army so he could return to civilian life through the country’s demobilization program. Instead, he was arrested and sent to Angenga.
Eight other children who had been child soldiers with the FDLR said they surrendered to the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) in North Kivu’s Rutshuru and Masisi territories. The children said the peacekeepers later handed them over to the Congolese army. MONUSCO asserts that seven of them had originally declared themselves to be adults and that the eighth boy did not pass through MONUSCO. MONUSCO also said that peacekeepers handed two other FDLR child soldiers – who originally declared themselves to be adults – over to the Congolese army, which then sent them to Angenga. MONUSCO said they wrongly assumed that the army would be sending former combatants to a reintegration camp instead of to prison.
Different divisions of MONUSCO, as well as non-governmental organizations, the Congolese army, and prison authorities, gave purported children significantly disparate ages, warranting a thorough review of existing policies, Human Rights Watch said.
A senior MONUSCO official was informed of the transfers to Angenga prison, which included children, at least by October 2015 in a meeting with a humanitarian organization. The UN Group of Experts on Congo also reported on the detainees in Angenga in October.
Five months after learning about the possible detention of children, MONUSCO sent a mission to investigate. During the three-day joint mission in March 2016, MONUSCO and Congolese army officials together conducted cursory interviews with 94 alleged children, based on lists they had received from prison authorities and a humanitarian organization. The officials concluded that 22 detainees were children.
Human Rights Watch believes that the number of children is most likely much higher and that the conditions under which the interviews were conducted and the limited time spent with each child hampered a thorough inquiry.
On March 28, a senior MONUSCO official said the mission was working with the Congolese government to transfer the children out of the prison but that no date had been set for the transfer.
Some of the FDLR fighters detained at Angenga may have been involved in war crimes or other offenses. But they, like the others, have not been charged or brought to trial. They include an FDLR officer, Séraphin Nzitonda, who faces a Congolese warrant for his alleged role in a mass rape.
“UN officials have been aware that children were being held at Angenga but waited for months before acting on this information,” Sawyer said. “Congolese authorities need to work closely with MONUSCO to get the children out of the prison. Children shouldn’t be there, and given the dire conditions of the place, it seems no one should.”