Recruiting children to be soldiers has been a sad reality in Africa for some time.
For 20 years the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen all too much of this issue. Armed conflict has been a recurring problem for the country, and much of this conflict has involved child soldiers. Thousands have been taken from their families to have AK-47’s and other weapons forced into their hands.
DR Congo native, and former child soldier, Balezi Bagunda is working hard to keep guns and other weapons out of children’s hands. Instead, he wants to put something else in their hands: boxing gloves.
The country’s boxing champion in 2008, Bagunda and other ex-child soldiers now teach the sport to children on the streets of Goma.
Speaking about his time as a child soldier, Bagunda stated that the recruiters promise you many luxurious things including women, but that all you experience out there is death, hunger and pain. This is what he hopes to save the children in Goma from experiencing.
“Our country has abandoned its children, but I haven’t,” said Bagunda. “It gives the kids some hope of being something other than a shégué (term for street child).”
Bagunda, who goes by his fighting name of Kibomango, calls what he does for the children the “Friendship Club.”
The work that Bagunda does gives the children some confidence that, otherwise, they normally wouldn’t have. Many of the children he works with are orphans and look up to the boxing veteran for inspiration, but they are also inspired by the various other coaches as well.
One of these coaches includes Eritier Shababyere who was kidnapped and forced into becoming a child soldier at the age of 16. After managing to escape, Shababyere fled to Goma where he met Bagunda. With Bagunda’s help he learned how to box and was also able to find work.
Bagunda expressed that training sessions are open to everyone. Training begins at 6 a.m. at a stadium found on the outskirts of a slum. Those who show up late to training are punished by having to run five laps around the stadium field. Some just show up to watch, but after being inspired by Bagunda, may strap on some gloves the next day to take part in this incredible coming together of a community.
In a country that Bagunda believes has more abandoned children than anywhere in the world, there is a special place in Goma where all the pain and agony of war is forgotten.