Children of War Fighting in Congo

— For many young boys in the northeastern town of Bunia, the day begins with precision marching and a drill.

They are the soldiers of Congo's civil war: teenage warriors, in hand-me-down fatigues. Most of them have been soldiers for years, even though they fall far short of the legal age.

When asked the age of a comrade, a young male who appears pre-adolescent himself answers in French, "He's 18."

Even he can't say it with a straight face. Before much more can be divulged, the other soldiers order the young man to go inside, out of sight.

It is a war crime to enlist and deploy soldiers under the age of 15, but local commanders in Bunia don't seem to care. The United Nations estimates that between 40 percent and 60 percent of the soldiers fighting in Congo's civil war are children.

There are believed to be tens of thousands of child soldiers. They are loyal, enthusiastic — and cheap.

Rebels Without a Cause

In Bunia, where rival tribes are fighting for control of resource-rich Ituri province, aid workers have become all too used to the sight of warrior children.

"The majority of the people with guns are children, anything from 8 [years old] to 16, 18, but the average is 12," said Libby Kennard of Save the Children.

At age 12, Keesambo is already an ex-soldier. He says he quit the army because the food was bad.

"They fed us only a handful of beans and corn each morning," he told ABCNEWS in Swahili, while an interpreter translated his words.

The commanders have been warned repeatedly. Thomas Lubanga, the Hema warlord who controls Bunia, claims to lead an army of 15,000 men.

Lubanga, of the Union of Congolese Patriots, maintains, "I have no child soldiers."

Kristine Peduto, a child protection officer with MONUC, the U.N. Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, doesn't believe him.

"Just look around the streets," she said. "He's got more than 50 percent of his soldiers who are kids, it's not possible for him to deny that."

French peacekeepers have been authorized to shoot any troublemakers. It bothers them that they now face an army of children.

Maj. Xavier Pons, deputy spokesman for the Multinational Force in Congo, said, "It's a pity to see young people with weapons. But our mandate is clear: Anyone who threatens the force will be engaged."

If keeping the peace here means they have to kill children, many boys no older than Keesambo will die.

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