The Stolen Childhoods of Kasai, DRC

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The genesis of the Kasai crisis

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a poor record of addressing local conflicts. President Joseph Kabila, who came in power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, has failed to guarantee protection of civilians. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in some instances the DRC government and its security forces have fuelled local tensions and collaborated in crimes and violations against civilians by some militias.

In April 2016, tensions escalated in the central Kasai province when the national government refused to recognize Jean-Pierre Mpandi, known by his hereditary title [Chief] Kamuena Nsapu, as the traditional chief. Over the following weeks, the Kamuena Nsapu’s followers began attacking state buildings, the police and other symbols of state. The violence intensified after Chief Kamuena Nsapu was shot dead during an army operation on 12 August 2016.

Amnesty International
The international community and African leaders cannot afford to continue ignoring this desperate and dangerous situation.


The Kasai crisis in the centre of DRC has been characterized by the appalling brutality of the parties towards the civilian population. Little has been said about how the crisis has stolen the dreams of hundreds of thousands of children. According to a UNICEF report published in May 2018, 60% of members of armed groups are children.

Our researchers interviewed people in Kasai’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in September 2017 and found that children started joining the armed group as early as June 2016. Some were lied to or encouraged to join the Kamuena Nsapu insurgency by their parents or relatives.

Aaron*, 16, said his father pressured him to join the armed group in 2017. “He told me that my friends are joining this movement to liberate the country. Go do the same.” Vera*, at only 15 was forced to join the Kamuena Nsapu by her grandfather who was also a chief of a Tshiota (an initiatory centre).  

Constant* was told by his friends in 2016 that the Kamuena Nsapu was a new movement formed to liberate the country through war and it paid a lot of money. He also thought he could get free education by joining the armed group. He was 15 at the time.




After an initiation ritual (during which children were forced to drink secret potions, alcohol, eat live insects… ostensibly to make them impervious bullets), children were sent to kill and also used by adults as human shields.

Bertine*, a 13-year-old girl stated that: “When we went to fight, we [girls] were put on the front line and the men came behind. We were armed with machetes and knives.”

Another girl, Marine*, 14, told us: “We went to the battle with mops… Papa Dieudo, one of the Kamuena Nsapu leaders, told us if we shake the mop in front of a soldier, their head [would] be cut off. I did shake the mop several times, but I never saw any soldier dying.”

We met Christelle* in September 2017 when she was 17. She told us that young girls who were not virgins were raped by the leaders of the initiation centre every night.

In September 2017, Amnesty International found that 34 children were detained due to their affiliation to the Kamuena Nsapu.



©United Nations
Sarah*, born in 2002, lost her mother in January 2017.
They told us to not react if our Tshiota was attacked. They told us to evoke the name of the Grand Chief [Kamuena Nsapu] to vanish and disappear.


As the violence in Kasai continues, children continue to suffer the most, being exposed to horrid violence.

Thousands of children have been either forcibly recruited or tricked into fighting in the armed conflict by armed groups such as the Kamuen Nsapu. A military campaign launched by the government against the Kamuena Nsapu insurgency has cost thousands of lives and has displaced more than a million people, some within the Kasai region and others crossing into Angola.

Children, as young as 11, who spoke to our researchers in 2017, told stories of gruesome abuses including being forced to participate in the combat, sustaining injuries from bullets. They also said they were forced by Kamuena Nsapu leaders to drink mystic fluids, supposedly in order to protect them against bullets during combat.

According to United Nations agencies, the humanitarian crisis resulting from the conflict is worsening as more than 700,000 children are malnourished and need urgent assistance to recover from acute malnutrition.

The DRC government must act now to protect children from use in armed forces and other abuses by all parties involved in the conflict.


Map courtesy the United Nations

The Kasai region is composed of five provinces: Kasai Central, Kasai, Lomani, Sankuru and Kasai-Oriental

Image showing a scar of stitches on the lower back of child Image showing a scar of stitches on the lower back of child


Amnesty International has on a number of occasions raised concerns over the crisis in Kasai calling for inquiry into the violations and abuses and for accountability. In addition to reporting by human rights organizations, Radio France International also conducted an in-depth investigation into the crisis in the Kasai. Here are three broadcast episodes on the genesis of the crisis, the military’s brutal response and the UN reaction.


In six months, Joseph is suspected to have killed seven soldiers. He is 13. Thousands of boys and girls in the Kasai have been subjected to this by Kamuina Nsapu since 2016.

  Video courtesy UNICEF                                                                                     ©UNICEF 2018



In July 2018, the UN Human Rights Council’s team of experts on the Kasai found that armed groups and the DRC forces have committed violations that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. They found that armed groups continue to forcefully recruit children and the DRC forces’ response continue to violate international humanitarian laws.

The stories that we heard from children as young as nine years old depict a gruesome and appalling picture of what has happened in the Kasai. We denounce the ongoing violence in the Kasai region, in particular the abuses and human rights violations against children.

The DRC government must take effective measures to protect children from forced or voluntary recruitment or use in armed forces and other abuses by all parties involved in the conflict in this region; and to ensure that former child soldiers have access to programs that cater adequately for their long-term support and reintegration into the community.

©United Nations


Image of African children seating in their wooden desks in a classroom Image of African children seating in their wooden desks in a classroom
Students attend a class in a temporary tent school set up by UNICEF in Mulombela village, Kasaï region, Democratic Republic of the Congo. © UNICEF/UN0162334/Tremeau


We joined that movement because of poverty. Here we are promised things for school and care. I want to start school and become a mechanic or an MP.
Francis*, 16-year-old.