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Hundreds of ex-child soldiers begin rehabilitation in Rwanda: UNICEF

Hundreds of ex-child soldiers begin rehabilitation in Rwanda: UNICEF

Some 227 former child soldiers have arrived at a rehabilitation centre outside the Rwandan capital of Kigali after being held near the conflict zone in the north-western part of the country where they had been captured earlier this summer, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said today.

Most of the children claim to have been forcibly recruited and trained in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), UNICEF said in a statement. In late May, clashes erupted in northwestern Rwanda between the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) and "infiltrators" from the DRC. After two weeks of conflict, the RPA gained control over most of the area, periodically capturing opposing fighters. Of the approximately 1,000 combatants taken into custody through early August, several hundred were children, according to the UN agency.

Initially kept under the custody of military authorities, the children - ranging in age from 10 to 18 years - were soon transferred to a "solidarity" camp in Mudende (Gisenyi Prefecture) set up by the civilian authorities to re-educate those who had been captured or who had surrendered. To help care for the children, UNICEF provided health supplies, water, sanitation facilities and basic survival items including mattresses, blankets and bed sheets.

"By early August, nearly 300 children had been taken into custody, at a rate of about 50 children per week," said Gerry Dyer, UNICEF's Chief Programme Officer in Rwanda. "Approximately 85 per cent of the children are Rwandan, the rest Congolese."

The children were transferred to the Gitagata rehabilitation centre outside Kigali over the past several days. "We are attempting to locate their families and prepare them for eventual re-integration into their communities," Dyer said.

With the children now in rehabilitation, UNICEF is focusing on tracing and family reunification, food and nutrition concerns, and non-formal education and psycho-social support. "We don't believe the children should stay in Gitagata for more than six months," UNICEF's Dyer said. "While we try to locate their families, all possible measures are being taken to provide them with the care and protection they deserve - both now and later, when they return home. That's their right."