"Child soldiers" is what they are referred to in the cruel language of war. Madeleine, now 18, was lucky enough to escape from the training camp where she was being held by force, abused and exploited. Today, she is fighting for justice for the victims of these practices – and is appealing to the conscience of the world community. So that these crimes won't go unpunished. And so that children can remain children.
Child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo © Unicef
Madeleine was eleven, when masked men brandishing weapons stormed her home in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They held heavy guns to her parents' heads and forced them to their knees. They took away the eldest of the crying children: that was Madeleine. She was blindfolded and given a shot of cocaine, opium and other drugs.
The start of a nightmare
When Madeleine came to and opened her eyes, she was looking at the ceiling of a wooden shack. She had been abducted and taken to a training camp of the "Mai Mai", militias active in the east of the war-torn Republic of Congo. There, she was trained as a fighter, turned into one of the estimated 30,000 child soldiers being used to fight
a war that has already claimed between four and five million lives.
More than half a million children are being exploited as soldiers © Unicef
The rebels trained her in the use of heavy firearms, explosives and as a spy. Their primary goal was to turn the children into killing machines, intoxicated by drugs, immune to pain. To this end they were treated horribly, forced to perform heavy work, and march for days without food.
"Nobody here can understand the pain I suffered," Madeleine says.
For girls, there is an extra layer of horror: they are routinely sexually abused and raped by the militia leaders.
"I was their fighter at the front line – and their sex slave," says Madeleine. She speaks softly and rationally, without any hint of rage. She just presses her thumbs together really hard. Does she not want to take revenge? "I am thankful that I can be here. Thankful that I was saved and can now help other girls."
Liberation from the training camp
In October 2006, Madeleine gained her freedom thanks to the negotiations of the aid organization "Ajedka". Her rescuers started treating her immediately to help her recover. "She was sick, addicted to heroin and disturbed,” one of them said. “But she was lucky in some ways: unlike most girls, she neither had AIDS, nor was pregnant."
Madeleine, a former child soldier © Bukeni Waruzi
Madeleine then found out that she had been held only a few hours away from her parents.
But she did not go and see her parents until a month after regaining her freedom. It was a sad encounter: Madeleine was crying, her mother and father had tears streaming down their cheeks, but they felt unable to talk about what had happened to her. Madeleine went back to "Adjeka" and started school. Then she began working for the organization, looking after "demobilized" child soldiers there. But knowing that her tormentors remained unpunished made it impossible for her to rest.
Child soldiers: their tormentors remain unpunished
In March 2007, a 15-year-old Madeleine stood in front of the plenary session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York. She burst into tears: "Why do we have to suffer like that, when children here go to school and can play with their mobile phones all day?" she asked.
She called upon the government representatives at the venue to finally take action: those responsible must be brought in front of an international criminal tribunal, sexual abuse of child soldiers must be punished, and the children needed to be supported, and given a chance to go to school.
She addressed a special appeal to Europe on that occasion: "The European countries have a great deal of influence with the UN. If you work on our behalf, we shall finally obtain justice."
"I will do everything I can to help"
Today, Madeleine is more confident than ever. In the future, she wants to make sure herself that her demands become reality. For this reason, she wants to study law, and plans to apply for a place at Harvard Law School.
Former child soldier Madeleine at 15 at the United Nations © Unicef
In January 2009, a lawsuit against Thomas Lubanga, a former militia leader in the Congo, began at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It was a step in the right direction.
But to date, those generals of Lubanga’s who have been tried have all walked free.
Madeleine has set her sights high. One day, she is determined to be at the top of her field, to be in a position to make decisions, and make things happen. "I have been very lucky and I am already living a very privileged life today. But I want to achieve more than that,” she says.
"I want to get the best education, make the best contacts. And then, one day, sit in the plenary session myself. When a little girl then asks for help, I shall do all I can to help her."